Sunday, December 26, 2010

Saved by Darkness

In 1978, I was as hardcore a geek/nerd/dweeb as a boy could be. Star Wars had come upon the world, legitimizing those of us who read books with spaceships and monsters on the covers (and got beaten up by our cousins for it, but that's another blog post). Starlog magazine was hot. TV had The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and the original Battlestar Galactica. Even music was jumping on the star wagon: Styx had spaceships at the climax of "Come Sail Away" and a Tolkein tribute song on their album Pieces of Eight. Heck, the entire British progressive rock scene owed as much to fantasy literature as it did to rock and roll. The time was right for me to undergo the final metamorphosis into the kind of genre fan and writer who lives, breathes and dreams about spaceships and dragons, lost in a world of imagination and whimsy.

But I was saved at the last minute from this darkness, by Darkness.

Bruce Springsteen's fourth album appeared in 1978. Prior to this, I knew him primarily from FM radio, which had introduced him via "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." But now I was right there for the new album, and because of it, nothing would be the same.

The music on Darkness is solid and muscular, made up of snarling guitars and surging keyboards. But the lyrics are what make it special, and what made me connect with it. The romantic escape of his prior work is gone, burned out and swept away. Every song is about people trapped in small-town lives, in soul-crushing ennui where dreams no longer matter. Yet in each song is a kernel of something that might be hope.

What really spoke to me were the songs about fathers and sons. By its very title, "Adam Raised a Cain" states its purpose, and musically recreates all those arguments between every dad and every son. "Factory," which at first seems so slight it might be filler, actually described my own father's life in painful detail. In fact, for the first time I realized it was possible to make music--and by extension, any kind of art--from someone's own life. Not in the literal autobiographical sense, but through feelings that everyone understood and experienced, emotions other than the "love/escape/party" music on the radio. Or the "heroic destiny/good vs evil/love conquers all" tropes at the heart of what I read, listened to and watched.

Because of this music, I stayed connected to the world in a way I otherwise might not have, and often against my will. No matter how much I wanted to disappear into the Federation, the Rebellion, Pern or Shannara, the Boss would drag me back. Because I became a long-term Springsteen fan, I couldn't ignore or escape the real world. And when I began to synthesize the things I loved (horror and fantasy) with this real-world connection, I found my voice as a writer.

This is all fresh in my mind due to the release of The Promise, an exhaustive 3 CD/3 DVD set chronicling the making of the album. But I'd steer anyone interested simply to the album itself. Everything I talk about is there. And if you're a fan of my books, then you'll be able to share the moment when I turned onto the path that eventually led to the stories you enjoy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Meet the Queen of the Lot

This is the final post on films I watched over the Thanksgiving holiday. I watched other films (Leatherheads, Pandorum, Coffee and Cigarettes), but there isn't much to say about them. I'm ending on a high note, though.

A while back I stumbled across the work of Henry Jaglom, a filmmaker who's been forging his own indie path for forty years. He existed on the periphery of my cinema consciousness until I saw Last Summer in the Hamptons on cable and suddenly realized here was this totally original artist, untouched by any popular trends, with a consistent (and consistently fascinating) body of work.

His latest film is Queen of the Lot, a follow-up to 2006's Hollywood Dreams. Both star Tanna Frederick, an actress notable for her total emotional clarity; she communicates everything her characters feel with her whole being. There's a moment in her previous collaboration with Jaglom, Irene in Time, that is probably one of the most amazing bits of non-acting acting I've ever seen. For her to have such a response, she would have to genuinely feel the moment to a degree most film actresses wouldn't dare, and couldn't pull off.

In Queen, Tanna is back as Margie Chizek, an actress on the make who hides a will of steel behind a "gosh-shucks" Iowa farmgirl exterior. Yet the Iowa farmgirl isn't exactly a put-on, either. As "Maggie Chase," she's the star of a successful action franchise, and is dating a hot established star, but wants more (she compulsively checks her Google points). She's also under house arrest after two DUIs in one week.

Jaglom's films are as much about locations as they are characters, and the film divides itself between two main spaces: the opulent home of Margie's managers (Zack Norman and David Proval), and the family homestead of her boyfriend Dov (Christopher Rydell), scion of a fading clan of Hollywood royalty. In the first setting Margie knows her role; in the latter she's afloat, especially when she meets her boyfriend's normal, sane brother Aaron (Noah Wyle). She gets into everyone's good graces by taking them at face value, something these crass, jaded, sophisticated people almost can't comprehend. But is she showing her true face to them?

That probably makes the film sound more serious than it feels, because ultimately it's a pretty amusing story. Jaglom's improvisational methods allow the actors to essentially make up the dialogue as they go, and since many of them are playing performers as well, they know the territory. Frederick and Wyle have great chemistry together, and though she's the star, he becomes the story's center; he sees through Margie, but at the same time responds to the parts that feel genuine, just as we do. A real surprise is Jaglom's daughter Sabrina, who gives genuine bite to her performance as a resourcefully conniving teen.

But the show belongs to Frederick. Jaglom tends to make his films around specific actresses; he had an extraordinary run with his wife Victoria Foyt, and his collaborations with Frederick have brought him into new territory. He's found a context for her unique energy and given her strong co-stars to bounce off, something many filmmakers (and actresses) would avoid. As for Frederick, she brings a level of emotional intensity and honesty to Margie that feels at times like a documentary. I've never seen another performer consistently seem so absolutely unaware of the camera's presence and risk the kind of things she does.

I'd love to see Jaglom and Frederick revisit Margie every few years, in between other projects like Irene in Time. If the funny, touching Queen of the Lot is any indication, the character and milieu are far from exhausted, and Ms. Frederick remains a wonder to watch.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Do I want to know Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Madison, WI poet Lisa Marie Brodsky recommended Miranda July's 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know, and I finally watched it over the holiday weekend. It's an indie film in the broadest sense, made by an outsider artist and about outsider people, some of whom do things so confoundingly odd that you wonder if they exist anywhere but in a film like this.

It's a film about relationships, about people reaching for meaningful connection in all the wrong ways. The central character, Christina (Ms. July), is a conceptual artist who sends positive messages out into the universe in the (so far) vain hope that they might bring love and happiness into her own life. She meets Richard (John Hawkes), a divorced father of two who barely functions and perpetually looks quite literally stunned. Richard's two children have inherited this inability to make appropriate decisions about closeness, leading them to odd connections with some of the other characters. It's one of those films where everyone turns out to be far less than six degrees away from everyone else, whether they know it or not.

July herself, as Christine, is a touching screen presence, so delicately lost and lonely that her art-inspired attempts to reach out seem incredibly brave. As a writer, she has penned not just this script but a collection of short stories, and knows how to structure multiple narrative lines so they flow and resonate. And as a director, she gets amazingly unaffected performances from the younger actors.

The issue I had with the film was how I felt about some of these connections. It's clear what the movie wants me to think, as every shot and music cue is used to cast a wistful, hopeful glow over things that perhaps shouldn't be considered as such. Some of the connections--for example, between a first-grader and an unknowing adult woman via online sex chat--are just inherently uncomfortable, and no amount of sensitive scoring or empathetic performance can overcome that. So I tried to decide: do I give in and feel what the film wants me to feel, or do I stay true to my own deep-seated and possibly Philistine responses despite my wish to like the film's view of the world?

Speaking of these same issues, Rogert Ebert in his review says, "I know this sounds perverse and explicit, and yet the fact is, these scenes play with an innocence and tact that is beyond all explaining." In Variety, Scott Foundas says these things "...sound puerile or even irresponsible, then it is all the more to July's credit that she embellishes such moments with a whimsy and melancholia that makes them seem less about sex than about making meaningful connections with other human beings." So should I admire this, the way Jessica Winter does in the Village Voice ("...July ascribes sexuality to persons under the age of consent without coyness or moral hectoring") or should I go with my emotional reaction, driven by my feelings as both a parent and a writer ("The movie engendered the kind of uncomfortable, crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling I get when I'm subjected to bad performance art," as said by Sam Adams in Philadelphia's City Paper).

Even after a few days pondering it, I'm still not sure. I know what Ms. July wants me to feel; I just don't know if I'm ready, willing or able to feel it. I asked Ms. Brodsky, who'd originally recommended the film, for her thoughts and she summed it up pretty well: "Miranda July is a brilliant voice in contemporary literature and film. She seems to do everything. She'll also make you squirm in your seat with the uncomfortable truth, so beware."

Monday, November 29, 2010

What lies (er, hops) at the heart of The Maze?

One of the best thing about holidays? Catching up on movies! Over the next few days I'll be writing about some of the more interesting flicks I saw over the long weekend, starting with 1953's The Maze.

I remember watching The Maze at my uncle's house in Columbia, TN when I was a kid. I was too young for post-modern irony, so I took it at face value, and two things stayed with me: the nature of the monster at the end, and the "rational" explanation given for it.

Recently a friend found me a copy (it's never been "officially" released), and I was pleasantly surprised. The Maze is a low-budget little gem, full of surprisingly good things that balance out the...well, the undeniably goofy premise.

Kitty (Veronica Hurst) is engaged to Gerald (Richard Carlson), who is suddenly called back to his ancestral Scottish estate. Soon he breaks his engagement, but Kitty doesn't go down without a fight. With her spunky Aunt Edith in tow, she crashes Castle Craven and demands answers, especially when Gerald seems to have aged 20 years in a few weeks. When she doesn't get them, she sets out to find them on her own. What she turns up is...unexpected. WARNING: spoilers to follow.

Carlson, a veteran of It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon, is adequately emo as the tortured Gerald, but Hurst is a surprisingly tough-minded and resourceful heroine. She never falters in her determination to help Gerald, even when he insists he doesn't need it. She isn't one of those easily frightened scream queens, so when she does finally shriek, it's for a good reason. She's a welcome relief from the distressed damsels of so many similar films.

The film was originally made in 3D, and the depth of composition is interesting even in a flat image. The weird framing device (Aunt Edith narrating as essentially a disembodied head at the bottom of the frame) might have made more sense in 3D. And the use of the titular maze is creepily effective, on a low-budget par with what Kubrick did in The Shining.

But nothing compares to the nature of the monster, or the villain, or whatever one would call Sir Roger, the Baronet McTeam. He is, in fact, a 200 year old, sentient, man-sized bullfrog.


The film handles this in the only way possible, by keeping Sir Roger out of sight for most of the story, and almost gets away with quick glimpses during the climax. It's only the long shots, where the whole unfortunate costume is seen, and his rather silly demise that break out the giggles.

And much like the postscript of Psycho, we get a scientific explanation for what we've just seen. Seems that there was once an accepted theory called "phylogeny," which said that the human embryo goes through all the stages of evolution from invertebrate to mammal. Sir Roger, unfortunately, didn't develop past amphibian.

Sure, it's goofy. It was probably goofy in 1953. But it's also delightfully creepy, if you can put aside your post-modern irony.

Thanks to Bobbie at Junkyard Films for sending me this jewel.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pictures from World Fantasy Convention 2010

A few pictures from World Fantasy. I was too busy to take very many, unfortunately.

Me and my tablemate Travis Heerman, author of Heart of the Ronin, at the mass signing Saturday night.

Me and Amelia Beamer, author of The Loving Dead (which I reviewed here). Amelia also interviewed me for Locus magazine.

Me with Tom Doherty, head of Tor Books.

From left. Anthony Huso, author of The Last Page; author Brandon Sanderson's assistant (his name escapes me); Tobias Buckell, author of Halo: The Cole Protocol; Tobias's twin daughters; Tobias's wife Emily; Tor editor Paul Stevens; Marie Brennan, author of A Star Shall Fall; and me.

A treasure found in the hotel parking garage.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Loving Dead: zombies with one thing on their minds

When it comes to the living dead, I'm strictly vanilla. I want my zombies slow, shambling, mindless and prolific. I have no time for zombies that run, or speak, or suffer from a virus and aren't really zombies. So I began reading Amelia Beamer's The Loving Dead with a bit of trepidation, since her zombies are not only virus-spawned (and thus not technically dead), the virus is an STD. These zombies are both hungry, and horny.

But there's more at work here. For while the book breaks a lot of my zombie preference rules, it does include one thing I believe is essential for every good horror story: a level of metaphor. The Loving Dead may be about individual characters, but it's also about a specific class of people: disaffected urban twentysomethings so unused to having anything truly matter that, when the first zombies appear, their initial reaction is to pop in a DVD of Night of the Living Dead. Not to get survival hints, mind you, but just because of the association.

Michael and Kate are platonic housemates and co-workers at a San Francisco Trader Joe's. They throw a costume party the night the zombie apocalypse begins, and initially think it's all part of the game. When they realize it's not, but can find no corroborative evidence on TV or the internet, they're completely at a loss. Separated for most of the story, the twin narratives draw them together at the safest place they can imagine: the island of Alcatraz.

The book reminded me most of a fairly obscure Japanese SF film called Matango, or in America, Attack of the Mushroom People. In it, a shipwreck maroons a bunch of 60s-era affluent Japanese on a strange island, where they contribute absolutely nothing to their own survival before they apathetically mutate into the titular mushroom people. In its native country it was seen as a mocking attack on middle-class complacency; recut for the States, it came across as a big helping of WTF? But The Loving Dead shares its sense of a generation so unaccustomed to anything geniune that, when real danger arrives, they can only ignore it, or relate to it through pop culture. By the end, it's an open question whether the zombies or the humans are the most adrift in their world.

The Loving Dead is published by Night Shade Books.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Helsinki Homicide: ice cold crime without "girl" in the title

Scandanavian thrillers are all the rage right now thanks to Steig Larsson, but I've been a fan of this sub-genre since Peter Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow and the original Norwegian version of the film Insomnia. Larsson's Millenium trilogy may be the Hunger Games of its moment, but recently I discovered another Scandanavian author, from Finland, whose crime novels are much more to my taste.

Jarrko Sipila is a novelist and crime reporter whose "Helsinki Homicide" series has just begun being translated into English. The first one, Against the Wall, won the 2009 award for Best Finnish Crime Novel. It details the investigation into the murder of a young hoodlum mixed up in customs fraud, and follows parallel paths as both the criminal underworld and the police force seek the motive behind the crime.

It does something I love, best exemplified by the Michael Mann film Manhunter: it makes you hope that real cops are as smart, resourceful and tenacious as the ones in the story. The team under Lieutenant Kari Takamaki is unified by their dedication to duty, a Hawksian professionalism that needs no trite character justifications. These men and women do their job because it's their job, and they get their satisfaction from doing it to the best of their abilities. This is what separates them from the criminals, who are equally smart and resourceful but prey to disloyalty, greed and complex bonds of loyalty and revenge. The cops win by essentially maneuvering the bad guys into tripping over their own worst tendencies.

It's a bit hard to evaluate Sipila's style, since it's translated to English from Finnish; apparently the only word the two languages share is "sauna." He started as a journalist, so I imagine in his native Finnish his prose is punchy, succinct and vivid; if it's a little clunky in English, I can live with that. I had no issue with one common criticism, the complex Finnish names, except where two very similar ones (Lindstrom and Lydman) were concerned. Still, the cleverness of the plotting, the broad strokes of character and the unique milieu come through just fine. And what connects with the reader is the universality of it all: criminals have the same motives in Helsinki that they do anywhere else, and cops want to catch them for the same reasons they do in New York or LA.

Against the Wall is followed by Vengeance, which is near the top of my to-be-read pile. Hopefully more of the series will make it into English as well, because tough, honest crime novels are always welcome.

Sipila's novels in English are available directly from the Minneapolis publisher, Ice Cold Crime.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Help! I need a catch phrase!

One of the most fun parts of being an author is signing books for readers, but I often find myself stuck for clever wording. Sure, "best wishes" and "thanks for reading" are acceptable fall-backs, but I want something unique and fun. George Romero, for example, signs everything, "Stay Scared!" My problem is I write both horror and fantasy, so I need a catch phrase that works for both.

So help me out, you brilliant folk. And for incentive, I've got a copy of The Girls with Games of Blood on unabridged audio for the person who comes up with a workable catchphrase before I leave for the World Fantasy Convention on Thursday.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Two Jakes: the past never goes away

I love detective movies, and my tastes pretty much line up with the accepted canon of greatness: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Laura, The Thin Man, and so forth. And I have a soft spot for cross-genre mashups: Blade Runner, In the Mouth of Madness, Angel Heart.

But one of my favorites almost always gets blank looks.

The Two Jakes is the 1990 sequel to Chinatown, one of the major works of both the seventies and the detective genre. The Two Jakes isn't a defining classic like its predecessor, but neither is it the total failure of popular assumption. Instead it's a commentary on both the first film, and on the way the past is always with us in general. It's a sequel in that it involves the same characters, but in a greater sense it's a standalone story that uses Chinatown as a metatext. Normally I have a low tolerance for all things "meta," since they usually also involve wink-wink irony and nudge-nudge breaking of the fourth wall to let the audience in on the joke. But The Two Jakes plays it straight, and honest.

The film begins with JJ "Jake" Gittes, again played by Jack Nicholson, helping Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) catch his unfaithful wife in the act. I won't get into the plot, since it's a) really convoluted and b) part of the fun, but it does eventually tie into the events of Chinatown, so much so that a refresher viewing might be in order. The film is gorgeous to look at, feels authentically of its period (1948) and brims with great character actors in supporting roles. The script is again by Robert Towne, but instead of Roman Polanski directing, this time it's Nicholson himself.

I enjoy rewatching The Two Jakes a lot more than Chinatown. It's not just the earlier film's ghastly plot twist, or its nihilistic, almost mythically-depressing ending. The characters in The Two Jakes, both good guys and bad, are more fun to hang out with. A big reason for that is Nicholson's actor-centric direction, which gives the cast plenty of room to work. This could be interpreted as padding, and some critics berate the film for it, but those critics mistakenly expect another Chinatown. The Two Jakes is a different story, with a different point to make, and judging it against the earlier film does it a disservice.

Read a New York Times article on the film while it was in production here.

If you've seen The Two Jakes, or if this article prompts you to check it out, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The cover of Dark Jenny

At long last, here's the cover art for Dark Jenny, the third Eddie LaCrosse novel, due out next spring. The artist is Larry Rostant. As you can see, it goes in a whole new direction for the series.

So what do you think?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Meet the One-Eyed Monster

(Lily's shelter mug shot)

This summer I mentioned we got a cat. Apparently my prior comments on cats made this news surprising. So here's the scoop (and the litter box is over there! Badda-BING!).

I've gone on record many places as saying I hate cats. The last cat I lived with introduced herself by launching claws-first at my crotch (I was jingling change in my pocket at the time) and peeing on my leather jacket whenever possible. I adore dogs, want a dog, wish I had a dog. But instead I have a cat.

And the worst part is, I picked her.

We decided the boys needed a pet for the new house, so we went to the Shelter from the Storm adoption fair. I had every intention of taking home a dog, but clicked with none of the ones available. The cats, meanwhile, were displayed in a vast row along the outside wall of PetSmart, two and three cages high in places. Most had kittens or playful adolescent cats in them, and the cries of delighted children filled the air. Whoopee, I thought. As someone once said, "If you have a cat in your house, you also have a box of shit in your house."

And then, at one end, in a big cage all by herself, sat Lily.

She was fat. She was old. She had one eye. And no one was paying any attention to her. I saw a kindred spirit.

"We're taking that one," I said.

My family was so startled that I even wanted a cat that they gave me very little argument. We picked her up the same day we moved into the new house.

The decision has been eminently justified. She is sweet-tempered, quiet, affectionate and serene. She never lashes out at the kids for being too rough with her, even when the C-in-C poked her in her empty eye socket (yes, we took her to the vet, and no, there was no damage). She's still overweight, but we're working on that (having her litter box on the second floor helps). She's not a kitten, so I don't know how long she'll be around (her papers say she's seven years old), but she's settled into the family in a way I never expected.

I still hate cats, don't get me wrong. But every rule has an exception.

Lily sharing her bed with the Squirrel Boy. Oh, wait, it's the other way around....

Monday, September 27, 2010

If it'd been an Ellison, it woulda bit me

There's an old bit of wisdom that says, roughly paraphrased, if you pick up a snake and it bites you, it's not the snake's fault.

My wife is an avid science fiction reader, but she's never been to an SF convention. When her favorite SF author Harlan Ellison was announced as the guest of honor for local convention MadCon, she decided to make that her first convention experience. We signed up for the con, including the guest of honor banquet and speech.

The banquet was scheduled for 7-9, including Mr. Ellison's after-dinner speech. To allow enough leeway, we told the sitter we'd be back by 10:30. We were lucky enough to sit with Onion writer John Krewson, which made the evening even more entertaining.

Now, for those of you who don't know about Ellison, he's legendary for both his writing and his cantankerousness (see this recent interview). I'd never met him before, but the stories that preceded him made him sound a lot like the devil, in the sense that you were better off if he didn't know you existed. Just the day before the banquet, at a local bookstore signing, he snatched a cell phone from a fan who had been filming him and stomped on it. He's that sort of extreme personality.

Mr. Ellison did not begin his remarks until about 9. Keep in mind he's both legendary and elderly, and wasn't even sure earlier in the week that he'd be able to show up. I certainly don't begrudge him taking his time and enjoying what he says will be his last convention. Hell, I got a backpat from him for being the only person in the room* who knew the source of his "Phlegm Snopes" joke. But he rambled, went off on tangents, and abused people at will (usually to their delight) until we realized he wasn't going to finish before we had to leave. Still, this was Harlan Ellison, my wife's favorite author; it seemed impossibly rude to just get up and walk out in the middle of his speech.

Then he made it easy for us.

He abruptly stopped, pointed at my wife and said "You. You're making me nervous." He added (I'm paraphrasing) that he could read body language, could tell she need to leave and that she should just go ahead and do so. She told him it was due to the babysitter, and he joked that we should bring the kids the next day so he could make them cry. Left with no other graceful choice, we departed as quickly as possible. The crowd applauded and sang us out with "Aloha ╩╗Oe," which I suppose is better than the chorus of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

We laughed about this on the way home. After all, if this truly is his last convention, we may be the last people he chases from a room. It certainly gave us a great story. Still, when she asked how I'd feel if Bruce Springsteen (one of my heroes) had done the same thing, I got a glimpse of how she really felt.

I don't talk about my wife much online, but she's a very intelligent woman, at least 20% smarter than me. She's also a person of immense dignity. I certainly don't think I should've made a scene, or engaged Mr. Ellison in any way, since the evening was all about him, not us. But I'm sad for her. She has a vast collection of Ellison books, and knows his work intimately. I can only imagine how it feels to be publicly dismissed by him.

This is not an indictment of Mr. Ellison. He is who he is, and that persona is well known. We bought the tickets; in effect, we picked up the snake. That it bit us is unfortunate, but not really the snake's fault.


I want to give a special-shout out to the fan (I'm sorry I don't recall your name) who said how disappointed she was to learn I wasn't on any panels at the con. I was disappointed, too (being on panels is why I go to these things), but she made up for it. Fans, if you ever doubt a kind word to someone whose work you admire matters, let me assure you, it does. does to most of us.

*It was a room full of scholars and writers, too. Come on, people, no matter what genre you work in, you should know Faulkner. I'm just sayin'.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The process is its own reward" *

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing." --W. Edwards Deming

I get asked about my writing process a fair bit, so I thought I'd share an example of how I work, from initial draft to final revision. I'm not making any claims that this is the only way, or even the best way. It's just, as Elvis and Sinatra would say, my way.

Here, then, are the opening lines from Dark Jenny, the third Eddie LaCrosse novel due out in spring 2011.

This is how it read when I first wrote it:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s tavern accompanied by a blast of snow-laden winter air. An irate chorus demanded he close the door at once, some with pithier language that implied carnal relations with livestock.

Gary was used to that sort of response. He kicked the door shut, shook snow off his long coat and looked around until he spotted me. “LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

Things I like: the initial description of Gary Bunson.
Things I don't like: everything else.

This does describe the scene as I saw it in my mind. But the writing doesn't have any rhythm. It leaves a lot unclear, and the humor doesn't work at all.

So here's the same passage, revised:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. An irate chorus erupted at once, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with my girlfriend Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

Specific changes:
Moved the paragraph break to the beginning of the dialogue.
Removed the overkill phrase "snow laden" as a modifier for "winter air."
Changed "demanded" to "erupted" to make it clear that the tavern's patrons were particularly put out.
Removed the word "pithier," because that was clear in context.
Changed "he shook snow off his long coat" to "he shook snow from his long coat," because it just sounded better (sometimes that's the only reason you have for making a change, and it's perfectly legitimate).
Clarified where Eddie was while this was happening: seated at the bar with his girlfriend Liz.

This is definitely better, but it still jars in places. So, third and final revision (and how the text will appear in the book):

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. Immediately an irate chorus erupted, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

This time the revisions are minor, but no less important. They include:
Changed "An irate chorus erupted at once..." to "Immediately an irate chorus erupted..."
Added a phrase to the third sentence so it now reads, "Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind..." It both clarifies the character's reaction and establishes his attitude.
And finally, removed the words that identified Liz as "my girlfriend." I want my books to be wide open, so that even if this third one is the first a reader picks up, he or she can easily follow the story. But "my girlfriend" felt awkward, and the relationship is established within the next few pages anyway.

Not every passage gets three revisions. Some get none, some get a dozen. And there's no way to tell until you start working on them. One trick that never fails to show me problem spots is to read the text aloud to myself. Not in my head; out loud, using my voice. I recommend that to anyone.

So, writers out there: how does this compare to your process?

*Amelia Earhart

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Working titles (and titles that don't. Work, that is.)

My most recent novel, The Girls with Games of Blood, was the first one to hit shelves with my title on it.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Titles are funny things, and they have to be balanced between appropriateness, marketability and simple comprehension. But I thought I'd describe the titling process as I've experienced it, since I've just settled on a working title (The Two Eddies) for my fourth Eddie LaCrosse novel. Keep in mind, though, that the whole point of this post is that the book may very well come out under a different (and hopefully better) title in 2012.

My first novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, spent two decades under the simple title, Rhiannon. Yes, after the Fleetwood Mac song. And the Welsh legend which provided the original inspiration, and survives in the story if you dig deep enough. But my editor at Night Shade Books requested a different title because he felt the original one was too Fleetwood Mac-y. Since it was my first novel sale and I wasn't about to do anything to jeopardize it, I agreed and began listing alternate titles that combined pulp noir sensibilities with something recognizably high-fantasy (like the book itself). Between my editor and agent, I narrowed it down until we all agreed on The Sword-Edged Blonde. It catches the tone, and to me symbolizes the character of Rhiannon in the story (she is blonde and she does have two sides, or edges, to her personality).

My next novel, Blood Groove, started with the working title Oceans of Time. At that stage I hadn't settled on a 70s setting. When I did, I chose a phrase from Parliament/Funkadelic as the new title: Sadistic Groovalistic. Yeah, I know. Cooler heads, notably my agent, gently suggested a different title, something that didn't sound like a twelve-year-old made it up (that's my evaluation, not hers). Again various alternatives were considered, until she said, "I'm going to shop this under the title Blood Groove." To this day I prefer the title Blood Funky, but I can't argue with her wisdom, since the book got out there under her title.

The second Eddie LaCrosse book, Burn Me Deadly, was originally titled Lumina, after one of its characters. After the first novel established its precedent, it was a snap to come up with a new title for book two, tweaked from Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly. Everyone liked it, including me.

But I think I've gotten better at it. As I said, The Girls with Games of Blood was entirely mine, and the third Eddie LaCrosse novel, Dark Jenny, never had a different title. If there's a third vampire book, my title is Blood Will Rise (or Blood Will Rise Again, perhaps). I don't know if The Two Eddies will end up on the cover of Eddie LaCrosse's fourth adventure, or if the manuscript will even leave my desk with that title. But I have to call it something other than Eddie 4.

That is, unless I can figure out a way for him to fight Ivan Drago....

Monday, August 30, 2010

I walked into a bar...and he saw the end

Recently I read a novel that annoyed me no end with its capricious disregard of its own genre rules. And I worry that in it, I saw the end of the current boom of fantasy/paranormal novels crossed with the hardboiled detective form, which depresses me because hey, I write that kind of book.

The novel (unidentified here because it's symptomatic of something larger) is told in first person by a detective figure who battles unseen paranormal creatures all around us. He's tough, world-weary and driven, with a core of decency but a sense that he's the only just man in an unjust world.

There are two reasons authors use first-person for protagonists like this. First, the character puts on a deliberately unappealing and difficult front, and by hearing his inner voice we see the sympathetic hero behind the bluster. Otherwise, we'd be spending 400 pages in the company of a jackass. The other is that, as a detective, he pieces together the clues as they're discovered, and allows the reader to share his insights and discoveries is a big part of the fun.

You mess with this fundamental dynamic at your own peril. For example, Thomas Pynchon's recent Inherent Vice tries to mock this convention by telling the story in a weird third person singular voice that keeps tricking the reader into thinking it's first person when it's not. The result is a novel almost impenetrable in its tone, and certainly no fun to read.

Occasionally a writer will use multiple first-person points of view, to convey differing perspectives or information that one narrator wouldn't know. That's a valid technique, and the result depends on both the writer's skill and the structural support for these switches. Most common, though (and endemic to the book I just read) is the lazy approach of starting a novel in first person, but when a plot point becomes too tricky to convey that way, simply switching to third person for a chapter or two.

This sort of arbitrary voice change completely negates the reason for choosing first person in...well, in the first place. And it puts the author's limitations front and center, when the goal should be to hide those as much as possible. I'm not saying these sorts of literary tricks should never be used, just that they should never be used simply because the author doesn't want to take the trouble to think a little harder about how to make his or her point. Or, and I suspect this is often the case, the author uses a first person voice because he or she thinks it's a genre requirement without understanding its actual function.

Genre conventions are definitions, and when they lose their meanings, so do the genres. And one big way they lose their meanings is by being used without being understood. Western films lost their power when Europeans began mimicking all the accoutrements without understanding their relevance; pure science fiction fell apart when George Lucas mixed in fantasy elements with the hardware. The self-narrating hardboiled detective, already too ironic to ever be successfully post-modern, is a very specific creature that can change backgrounds but must retain its inherent justification for its existence. Without it, it's just a pose, entertaining but empty.

So what do you think? Am I seeing a true sign of the genre apoclaypse, or am I just another doomsday prophet whining about the end of this minor literary world?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Survival of the Dead and how to keep a series interesting

Some background on me and George Romero's zombies:

I saw Night of the Living Dead one Saturday afternoon when I was in high school. The Memphis TV station, apparently thinking it was some innocuous old B&W horror movie, did not edit it. Forget the graphic intestine-eating: I'd never before seen a movie where the hero died such a pointless death. Later, when I got to college, I discovered there was a small community of people who'd watched that exact same broadcast and been similarly marked by it.

I saw Dawn of the Dead at the Cabana Theater in Jackson, TN. When the famous shotgun-to-the-head effect came up, a woman in a nurse's uniform got up and proclaimed to her date, "I see this shit in the ER all day, I ain't paying to see it now!" She stomped out. Her date stayed.

I saw Day of the Dead on videotape, alone in my college apartment. When the heroes were herded into the zombie enclosure, I had to stand up and pace around my chair for the remainder of the film. That's one way I handle suspense when I'm alone.

I saw Land of the Dead at a packed preview showing in Madison, WI. Cheers greeted Tom Savini's momentary cameo. Bigger cheers greeted the zombie biting out a girl's navel ring.

I saw Diary of the Dead at the late Westgate Art Cinema in Madison, with six other patrons (which explains why it's "late," I suppose). I stayed all the way through the credits to see if there was a stinger. There wasn't.

And now, Survival of the Dead, on blu ray in my living room, once again all alone.

You can find synopses of the film online, so I won't bore you with one here. What I will say is that Romero once again subverts expectations by giving us a zombie movie that's almost a western, with wide-screen photography, galloping horses and lots of gunplay. It's also the first true sequel in his series, featuring a character introduced in Diary of the Dead. At the same time you get the expected tropes: an isolated setting (in this case an island), survivors enmeshed in petty squabbles while missing the big picture, plenty of gore (most of it CG enhanced to the point of [deliberate] ridiculousness), and zombies doing things they've never done before.

Is this as good as Dawn of the Dead? No. You don't hit that sort of pinnacle more than once. John Ford made a lot of westerns, many of them great, but he only made one The Searchers. At the same time, it's impressive how Romero, working in such a narrowly defined form, continues to find new ways to present his zombies. A lot of web critics dismiss his newer films as lacking the chops of his earlier work, but that's missing the point.

After you revolutionize the genre with your first two horror films, it's impossible to keep repeating the trick. The fact that Romero doesn't simply rehash the same old thing is both admirable and exciting. As a novelist who writes a series, I see this as an example of how to do it right: name another series where the individual films are so hugely different from each other,and yet (to me at least) still give the people what they want.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return of the Verdilak

Lately I've been reading multiple books at once, a chapter here andc there of completely unrelated things: the second Denton novel by Kenneth Cameron, No-Man's Lands by Scott Huler (about retracing the journeys of Odysseus), an unbelievably detailed book on the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a novel for which I've been asked to do a cover blurb. Usually I'll get into one of these at the expense of the others and read it through to the end before returning to the pile, but in this case I got pulled off-track by something I unexpectedly found in a local used book store: the 1996 graphic novel Verdilak, by Bo Hamtpon and Mark Kneece.

The title, one of the many European terms for "vampire" (specifically one who preys only on loved ones) caught my eye first. I first learned the word from the middle section of Mario Bava's 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath; when I opened the book, the artwork clearly referenced the Bava film, so at first I thought it was an adaptation.

But it was actually something more subtle. It uses the Bava film as metatext, taking its visual clues not just from I Wurdelak but from other Bava films such as Black Sunday. It covers some of the same narrative ground, but with a far different beginning and resolution. And ultimately it becomes an epic, unlike the Bava film's intimate familial horror.

In the film, a young aristocrat stumbles on a family in the process of being consumed by the curse of vampirism. He tries to save the beautiful daughter, but it doesn't go well. In the graphic novel, this simple tale is backstoried with an account of Ramash, a deformed dwarf who takes in a beautiful peasant girl (the other daughter of the doomed family), showers her with affection only to have her run off with the first handsome man who comes along. And at the end, Ramash's father (Satan) shows up to aid his son in his revenge. It's a simple story, carrying the weight and atmosphere of folklore, and it broadens and deepens Bava's original by providing motivations and explanations the film never really needed.

But for me, what makes it special is the watercolor artwork by Bo Hampton. He recreates Bava's imagery without pandering to it, making it work in a different medium. He also adds enough of his own touches that it feels original, not merely a recreation. His most crucial change is rethinking the image of the family patriarch. In the film Boris Karloff's kindly eyes provided an eerie contrast to his actions. Here the character bears a greater resemblence to Josef Stalin, which is appropriate given the revised context.

I asked Hampton, who also co-wrote the text, what inspired him to undertake such a project. He said, "I love Mario Bava and his version in the movie trilogy Black Sabbath had a huge influence on me. I wasn't happy with the logic of some events and went back to the A.K. Tolstoi source, and after translation to English it wasn't much more help. So I came up with an idea [and brought in] co-writer Mark Kneece to flesh it out."

Verdilak is out of print, but worth the effort to find. It's a powerful introduction to the concept of the adult fairy tale, and lacks the annoying tendency to blatantly "meta" its source; in fact, it's "meta" only if you already know the source. If you don't, it's a sincere, irony-free horror story with the kind of moral basis found in real fairy tales, the ones that stick in your memory long past childhood.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The profit motive (or, the prophet motive)

Recently on my Facebook/Twitter feed I posted a bit of Roger Ebert's review of the new Julia Roberts movie, Eat Pray Love: "[To like the movie] I guess you have to belong to the narcissistic subculture of Woo-Woo." I quoted it because I found it funny, and should make clear right now that I have neither read nor seen the book/movie in question.
In his review Ebert also said, "She [author Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Roberts] funds her entire trip, including scenic accommodations, ashram, medicine man, guru, spa fees and wardrobe, on her advance to write this book."  This got my attention, so I checked around.  Sure enought, the New York Times book review confirms it: "Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and Eat, Pray, Love is the mixed result."

Really? Gilbert gets an advance (significant enough to allow international travel, yet) to write a book about her spiritual quest prior to setting out on it? So before starting she knows that a) the quest isn't really going to cost anything materially, and b) she'll need to create a narrative of it compelling enough to justify the investment. Clearly she did the latter. But my question is, doesn't the existence of the former invalidate the whole thing?

Consider another literary account of a real-life spiritual quest, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Its protagonist exists barely above the poverty line, and suffers numerous indignities (many of them self-induced) as a result. His quest has no real agenda, no goal, and his insights occur only at his lowest points. His conclusion is that to live in that society he has to abandon the very things that drove him to the quest in the first place--i.e., grow up. He then writes about it, and only then is he rewarded materially for it.

The obvious difference between the two is one of gender, but I don't think that's the crucial one. I think it's more about the integrity of intent. I don't believe you can embark on a spiritual quest intending to profit from it, at no substantial cost to yourself, and emerge with any meaningful insights. All great quests, from Siddhartha to Moses, from Ghandi to On the Road, begin from a level of desperation that goes much deeper than, as the Washington Post says in its book review, being "a plucky blond American woman in her thirties with no children and no major money worries" who "is going through a really bad divorce and subsequent stormy rebound love affair."

Or, to put it more concisely, On the Road inspires people to emulate it. Eat Pray Love inspires a Julia Roberts movie.

To be fair, I've often been accused of cynicism when it comes to other people's motives, particularly famous and/or successful people. So what do you readers think? Is this a valid point, or just sour grapes from a writer who hasn't yet gotten a big enough advance to finance a fun week in Wisconsin Dells,* let alone an epic journey into the meaning of existence?

*(Okay, that's an exaggeration for effect. My average advance would buy me quite the time in the Dells.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

"The Somber Enemy"

Thanks to Rita Mae Reese for suggesting this blog post.

One side-effect of being a full-time writer is that I'm also the stay-at-home parent for my two sons, ages 5 and 2. They impinge on every single moment of my day, especially the younger one, since he's underfoot almost constantly. My wife works in an office 45 minutes away and spends her days conversing with adults; I know way, way too much about The Fresh Beat Band.

A famous poet--I've searched and searched, but can't find the actual quote--said something to the effect of, "My poems are short because I have children." Man, do I sympathize. I've gone from entire days of sitting lazily in my underwear writing page after page, to scrambling to get my thoughts down during the twenty-three minutes of Ni Hao Kai Lan. Most everything you read by me these days (including this blog post) started as a brief note typed into the body of an e-mail on my tiny Acer, chosen because it fits in the younger son's diaper bag. I've had to master the trick of writing amid hoardes (okay, only two, but they're overachievers) of children screaming, running, drumming and fighting. I can stay reasonably on task while simultaneously shouting things like, "Get the lightsaber out of your nose!" But I wouldn't call it easy.

(The Squirrel Boy, pre-nasal insertion.)

Of course I worry that it's going to show in the final product. A writer's greatest tool is his/her ability to concentrate, and mine is dangerously overextended. Will my next novel be a sloppy compendium of half-assed ideas that I simply lacked the energy and opportunity to polish before deadline? Obviously I hope not, and I'll do my best to make sure that doesn't happen. But I have no problem imagining that to be the case. Cyril Connolly said, "There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," and on my worst days I see the chilling wisdom in that.

But luckily, there's a significant upside. One is motivation: knowing that you have tiny helpless human beings dependent on you is great for kicking your ass into gear. The other, surprisingly, is clarity. When you realize that what you write today is part of the legacy you'll leave your children, then it helps keep you focused on what you really need to do. I may never write a best-seller, but I feel that my published work will let my sons know me better when they're adults.

And if I do happen to write a chart-topper, I'll have a clear conscience about it.

(The C-in-C expresses his critical opinion of one of my first drafts.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines

Is there a more famous opening line in all literature than, "Call me Ishmael"? It introduces a mystery (the narrator doesn't say, "My name is Ishmael," he says you can call him that), it sets up the tone, and it tells us that the narrator has a wry, dry wit. It's brilliant. So brilliant that even people who've never read Moby Dick know it, and it's been used as both a joke (in the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and a pick-up line (in the novel Ahab's Wife).

I love Melville's book: I'm not a scholar, mind you, but a fan. I've read all about the symbolism, what the whale represents in Melville's cosmology, and so forth, but I love the book because it's an ass-kicking adventure with a monster and a strange, compelling protagonist. I even like the outdated chapters on whale biology, because it tells me what the book's characters knew about the beasts they hunted.

Stick with me through this next bit, because it all pulls together.

There's a subgenre of books that retell classic novels in simplified terms for young readers. Some are more obvious choices than others: you can read my interview with the author of a kid-friendly edition of Dracula here. But Melville's classic, featuring as it does a genuine monster, an obsessed peg-legged maniac and loads of exciting seafaring action, is a favorite. We own several different versions.

Our go-to version is the Great Illustrated Classics edition, "adapted" by Shirley Bogart. She retains the classic opening line. So does the Dalmatian Press Children's Classic version, "condensed and adapted" by W.T. Robinson, which also includes a neat disclaimer/mission statement that says, in part, "...this is not the original version (which you really must read when you're ready for every detail)." The Treasury of Illustrated Classics version, "adapted" by Donna Carson, goes a bit askew, changing the line to "My name is Ishmael." That immediately jettisons Melville's ambiguity, which I know kids can understand because my five-year-old and I have discussed it.

But in the Oxford Illustrated Classics edition, award-winning children's author Geraldine McCaughrean adds two entire paragraphs before the famous line:

There is a whale in the sea, as white as a ghost, and it haunts me. It haunts me on winter nights, when the sky tumbles like a grey sea, when the sun overhead turns the grass sea-green, and the almond blossom rears up white over my head.

Sometimes, when I'm afloat in sleep, like a drowned sailor, he swims toward me--a nightmare all in white, jaws gaping, and I wake up screaming and salt-water wet with sweat. Somewhere out there in the bottomless ocean lives Moby Dick, a great white winter of a whale, and I shiver still at the thought of him. Even in summer.

Call me Ishmael.

(p. 7)

When I read this, I thought: why did Ms. McCaughrean feel that one of the classic opening lines in literature needed a little more set up? So I asked her.

She responded, "Given the huge and leisured length of the original, I knew I had not only to get the story moving quickly but also state my intention on the first page - this is going to be a book about a whale, a really big, scary, menacing nightmare of a whale. Structurally, it's my promise to the reader - 'Look, even though you can't smell salt just yet, and I'm going to take a while introducing you to an assortment of oddballs, this is where we are heading - to an encounter with a damn great killer of a whale.'

"I also thought, given that this whale is at the centre of the book, the hub at the centre of the wheel, he ought to have 'first billing'. Naturally, I couldn't do without the famous line, but I thought if anyone is going to step into the room first, it ought to be Moby."

So it seems she had a reason, and I appreciate her taking the time to explain it to me. And I can see her point, were this any other book. But I think she missed something crucial: Moby Dick isn't a book about a whale, it's a book about a whale's effect on its human characters. Ishmael is our guide and proxy, leading us into the story not of a whale, but of a man (Ahab) whose sacriligious single-mindedness destroys everyone around him except Ishmael. And it may very well be that Ishmael's slightly aloof nature, the fact that he observes rather than fully participates in the madness around him, is what ultimately both saves him and lets him tell the story. He was "floating on the margin of the ensuing scene," as Melville puts it.

My point is, Ishmael earns his place at the story's introduction. And to begin any version of this story any other way is, in my opinion, to miss a whale-sized piece of the point.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Solving the Murder at the Cheatin' Heart Motel

Longtime readers of this blog will know I have a somewhat unresolved relationship with my home region of West Tennessee. It's not the most scenic area: the state of Tennessee slopes downhill from Appalachia in the east, so the western end is the lowest, muddiest and flattest part. Except for Memphis, there are no notable cities (I suppose you could count Jackson, but it's always felt like a city consumed by its own worst interests). And the people? Well, let's just say that when I lived there, they thought nothing of beating up a kid for reading a book. Because reading was weird.

So the last thing I expected to do was to find that this dull area had inspired hard-boiled genre literature. But damned if it didn't.

I ran across Art Bourgeau's Murder at the Cheatin' Heart Motel in the late Eighties, when I lived in Huntsville, AL. It was written in 1985, and concerned Claude "Snake" Kirlin, a freelance reporter for Ultra Suave magazine, and his buddy F.T. Zervich, trying to solve the murder of Snake's aunt, proprietor of the titular motel. The establishment is located on Chocktaw Lake, which Bourgeau describes thus:

"Anyway, in the winter of 1811 three earthquakes hit right where you're sitting. Each one was several times worse than the famous San Francisco earthquake. It was so bad that a land area of about a hundred miles simply fell into the earth. The banks of the Mississippi broke down, and the water rushed in to fill it. That's how Chocktaw Lake was formed."
(p. 13)

Wow, I thought. That sounds familiar. It sounds, in fact, like Reelfoot Lake. According to this entry on the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

"Popular history says that the lake was formed when the region subsided after the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812, and that the Mississippi River flowed backward for 10–24 hours to fill it."

Someone wrote a mystery set on a fictionalized version of Reelfoot Lake, a place I'd gone fishing and on picnics and visited my whole life! It was, for me, a world-shifting realization. And it got better.

Bougreau introduced the book's villain, Sheriff Casper Denny, with this:

"I'd heard of him before. Everyone had heard of him. He was a genuine, bona fide legend. A twentieth-century Wyatt Earp who had single-handedly taken on the west Tennessee mob, a group whose roots went all the way back to Jean Boquin. They had tried to move into his county, and in the process, the sheriff had been shot, had his house bombed, and his wife and son had been killed."
(pp. 17-18)

The resemblance to Sheriff Buford Pusser seemed unmistakable.

Recently I spoke to Art Bourgeau about his book, and to my surprise he said, "The sheriff character wasn't modeled on Buford Pusser. Sheriff Pusser was a heroic figure, my character wasn't. The two things that could make you think it was Sheriff Pusser was his haircut and him fighting the mob. I used the Glen Campbell haircut which he and many other sheriffs of the time wore as a metaphor to show he was a very uptight, stressed-out, anal type of person. The job didn't make my character this way, it was his nature. You can tell a lot about a man by his haircut...As to the nastiness of the personality of Sheriff Casper Denny, that was not a reflection on Sheriff Pusser. Quite the contrary, I never met the man. As far as I know, he was a saint. The character of Sheriff Casper Denny was an extension of my own life. My father was a Tennessee Deputy Sheriff and he was a shit."

So for twenty years, I'd had that wrong. But by the time I found out, I'd learned to look at the world of my youth with a writer's detachment instead of a ex-pat's ambivalence. Hints of that world have shown up throughout my work, and will probably always do so.

And at least I was right about Reelfoot Lake. Bourgeau told me, "The idea of the lake comes from reading about Reelfoot Lake and thinking it must be one of the neatest places on earth, but I've never seen it. However, I have seen the bayou of Louisiana and the wetlands of New Jersey, so I am familiar with how it might look. Still, it is darn fascinating. The New Madrid Fault and all that. It is larger than history. It belongs in fantasy."

Fantasy, huh? Hey, I write fantasy. Hmm....

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Last Mile(s): a review of King of the Road

Recently I wrote about Miles O'Keeffe, movie star and former resident of west Tennessee. Thanks to that post, I corresponded with Monica Surrena, the writer-director of Miles' most recent work, a short film titled King of the Road. You can see the trailer here, and she was kind enough to send me a DVD.

King is the story of Wild Bill, an aging biker who simultaneously loses his dog and his favorite bar. He challenges the bar's new owner to a bike-off in a bid to regain both his watering hole and his self-respect. As the poster's tag line says, "A man without a bar is no man at all."

As I said, this is a short film (20 minutes) so it makes its points quickly and clearly. It also feels like a movie, something a lot of short films (and I was a judge for a local film festival last year, so I'm speaking from experience) don't accomplish, or often bother to try to achieve. There's humor, pathos, and narrative surprises that come out of left field and yet feel perfectly right for the story. And there is a story, well-constructed and effective. The film's also shot in widescreen format, and Surrena gets the most out of her means, resulting in that rarest of qualities in today's flash-cut film world: King of the Road actually has real movie sweep.

And Miles? He's dead-on. The rapport with his best pal Igor (John Bigham) is perfect. Plus the cultural weight he brings to the part (former big-screen actor now working in student films) is exactly right for a once-famous outlaw biker. I admit to teasing his image a little in my prior post, but his work here, while definitely amusing in places, is no joke.

Surrena is currently shopping King of the Road to film festivals, so if you're involved in one, let the organizers know. There are enough navel-gazing one-joke short films out there; your audience deserves a film that's also a real movie.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"I've got a lot of patience, baby": the story behind the dedication of The Girls with Games of Blood

My first Memphis vampire novel, Blood Groove, was dedicated to the memory of Duncan Browne (read why here). Browne remains a fairly obscure musical figure, although I hope I've nudged a few people toward seeking out his work. But The Girls with Games of Blood is dedicated to one much better known, whose songs helped define the Sixties, even if those songs were performed by other people.

Laura Nyro wrote classics: "Eli's Coming," "And When I Die," "Stoney End," "Wedding Bell Blues." And while her versions languished in relative obscurity, cover versions (Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Barbra Streisand, The Fifth Dimension) were enormous hits, insuring both her reputation and her economic security. Safe from the pressures of commercial hitmaking, she created a piano-driven, soul-based body of work that, in its willful difficulty and self-referential symbolism, predated similar performers (most notably Tori Amos) by twenty years. Tragically, she died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at age 49, the same age her mother died of the same disease.

In The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce, Fred Goodman describes her thus:

"[Laura] Nyro, who resembled a chunky Morticia Addams, was both unusually talented and just plain unusual. Dressed in black with her long hair reaching down to her thighs, Nyro wore purple lipstick and used Christmas tree ornaments as earrings." (p. 122)

I had written an early draft of Blood Groove just before Goodman's book came out in 1998, and was toying with the idea of a sequel based on the idea of two girl vampires fighting over Zginski. There was no story yet, and no clear concept of the new characters. But the description in Goodman's book stuck with me.

I had a passing familiarity with Nyro's work, but I followed my new obsession where it took me and began listening intently. In the larger sense, it exposed me to a lot of awesome music I might otherwise have missed (does anything evoke a lazy, woozy summer afternoon better than "Stoned Soul Picnic"?). And in the song "When I was a Freeport and You were the Main Drag," I found this:

Well I've got a lot of patience, baby
That's a lot of patience to lose

Somehow the image from Goodman's book clicked with this snippet of lyric and created, full-blown in one burst, the character of Patience (as well as providing her onstage catchphrase). She's not a direct copy of Nyro, of course; in fact, she ultimately has very little in common with her inspiration beyond a basic physical resemblance. But without Laura Nyro, there would be no Patience Bolade. And without Patience, there would be no Girls with Games of Blood.

Nyro performing "Save the Country" on TV in 1969:

Leave a comment on the last vintage musician you rediscovered and you might win a signed copy of the new book.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


It's release day for The Girls with Games of Blood, the follow-up to my first Memphis vampire book, Blood Groove.

When Blood Groove came out last year, I of course checked at my local Barnes and Noble to see if they carried it. I was disappointed at first not to see it among the other vampire novels in the Sci Fi/Horror section, so I asked if they planned to stock it. The clerk said it was in stock, shelved in the Literature Section.


Okay, first let me say, that's flattering. Certainly I'd like to think I write literature. Still, Blood Groove is about vampires: hard core, drink-your-blood-and-toss-your-wasted-carcass-aside undead. It's not romance, it's not light, and it's certainly not heartwarming. The audience for the average literary novel would be blindsided, I fear, by its contents (see this recent review).

I asked how this classification was determined, and was told it was done at the corporate level. So apparently someone at Barnes and Noble HQ thinks I belong just before Lucy Jane Bledsoe (The Big Bang Symphony: a novel of Antarctica). Which, again, is flattering. Publisher's Weekly says about her book, "Bledsoe finds the spark of life amid the ice and desolation." Heck, that could almost work for mine as well.

The point to this little post is, if you go to Barnes and Noble to find The Girls with Games of Blood (and you should; you know you want to), don't look with the other vampire books. Check in literature, under "B," next to Lucy Jane.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Exclusive new Memphis Vampires short story

As a thank-you to all the folks who enjoyed Blood Groove, and in anticipation of the release tomorrow of The Girls with Games of Blood, here's the first part of a short story that takes place between the two books. You can read the whole thing on my website here.


(c) 2010 Alex Bledsoe

Memphis State University, late summer, 1975

"You again," the sour librarian said as she looked up.

"Yes," Alisa Cassidy said, "me again." She struggled to smile despite the stab of pain. Six months, the doctors said, and that's if she put herself in their hands, which she refused to do. Lying bald in a hospital bed was not how she wanted to go. She had no patience for this wrinkled old crone's little power trip, but it was a barrier that had to be negotiated if she wanted to reach her goal. She added helpfully, "I called ahead."

"Oh, I know," the librarian said as she rose from her seat. Her long, spindly limbs made her resemble some insect unfolding; her tall beehive hairdo added to the effect. "I have it ready for you."

Alisa dearly wished Mrs. Cutlip, the former librarian, was still alive. For that matter, she supposed, so did Mrs. Cutlip. This replacement, brought in from one of the state system's outlying campuses, seemed determined to make Alisa's remaining time as miserable as possible. Whereas Mrs. Cutlip was always glad to see her and never insisted on the protocol of appointments, this bitter artifact was a stickler for meaningless details.

Alisa followed her to the Special Collections reading room, where the book waited for her. It sat on the pristine table like a fat, well-fed slug, its leather cover swollen with mildewed padding. The metal clasp and hinges were green with corrosion, and a black patch on the spine showed where someone had once attempted to burn it. The antiseptic confines of the rare book reading room made it look even more rancid. The thought of touching it again always made Alisa's stomach turn.

"Wear these," the librarian said, indicating a box of disposable cotton gloves. She looked disdainfully at the book, then at the woman who dared to consult it. "This book is the work of the devil, you know."

"So I've heard," Alisa said. Every time I talk to you, she added in her head.

"You can't study it and not be affected by it. It wouldn't surprise me if that's why you got cancer."

Alisa's head snapped up, and the glare she gave the old woman was the first thing that had ever cracked the hag's smug superiority. "If you'll excuse me," Alisa said through her teeth, "I have work to do."

The librarian scurried out. Alisa trembled with suppressed rage and almost dropped the contents of her briefcase all over the floor. She sat and took several deep breaths, fighting the tears burning behind her eyes. It was a small campus, so naturally word got around about things like a faculty member with a terminal illness. Still, how do you justify calling yourself a Christian when you say things like that?

Alisa struggled to concentrate on the book before her: the Festa Magotta, a.k.a. the "Feast of Maggots." She put on the gloves and turned the pair of metal clasps. She lifted the cover and scowled at the puff of noxious odor that escaped.

She consulted her notes and began turning the heavy, stiff pages. Translating this book was her life's goal, and since that timetable was now significantly shortened, she had no time to waste.

She reached the point where she had stopped at her last session and turned the next page. Tucked into the fold was a thin stack of paper, of a much more recent vintage and covered with handwriting in English. She held her breath and leaned close, discerning the words "horror," "insanity" and "poodle."

She looked over her shoulder. If the mantis-librarian saw this, she'd snatch the papers away and Alisa might not see them again for months--months she didn't have. So she carefully pulled them out, hid them among her own papers and began to read....

Read the rest of the story here.

And you can order your copy of
The Girls with Games of Blood here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Going the extra Mile(s)

After I wrote yesterday's post on Miles O'Keeffe, I spoke with with Monica Surrena, the writer/director of King of the Road, Miles' most recent film. She said:

"Miles is a really easy going guy. Kind of soft spoken and was delightful to work with. Even though it was a student short, he took it very seriously, did many of his own stunts (except the outrageous bike stuff - that was done by Monte Perlin), and shared a lot of anecdotes about some feature films he'd been in. When he wasn't on camera, he spent most of his time sitting by himself, getting into character. 'Wild' Bill was based off of my dad. If you ever met my father, you'd see how well Miles took the real person and adapted it to the fictional down and out hero. Both he and John Bigham (who played Bill's sidekick, Igor) also worked together well and did quite a bit of improve on set. I've kept in touch him since the film, and if I do anything else, I'd like to use him again. He's a real pro."

Here's the trailer, showing Miles in action (love the spinning motorcycle bit):

The film's official website is here. Thanks again to Monica Surrena.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: Miles (and miles) O'Keeffe

NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing 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.

"My name is spelled with two e's, two f's and another e, and nobody ever spells it right."

If you're of my generation, you remember Bo Derek as the epitome of beauty, codified and made official by the movie 10. But if you're a genre fan of my generation, you also remember her next film, a project so godawful it still provokes open-mouthed amazement. 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man borrowed its title from Johnny Weissmuller's debut film but everything else came from some bizarre other dimension. Directed by Bo's husband John Derek, it featured Bo as Jane, an unrestrained Richard Harris as her egomaniacal father, and as Tarzan, newcomer Miles O'Keeffe.

That would be the former Miles Keefe of Ripley, TN.

Genre fans also know Miles from a pair of roles later in the 80s. In Sword of the Valiant, he played Sir Gawain to Sean Connery's Green Knight. Sporting a blond pageboy wig, Miles shows us things you never knew you wanted to know, like how to use a can opener to urinate while wearing armor.

In the Italian film Ator, the Fighting Eagle, he's a fantasy swordsman battling evil, but it's the sequel, known in some places as Cave Dwellers, that really keeps him on the map. This film, riffed by Mystery Science Theater 3000, is available in the Volume 2 set. And on page 37 of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, actor/writer Mike Nelson pens a tribute to his vision of Miles.

I've never met Miles, but he comes across as a solid actor whose basic dignity survives even the worst of his films. My buddy Hays Davis (fans might spot him as the person to whom Burn Me Deadly is dedicated) grew up in Ripley and provides this Miles-related anecdote:

"My friend Kathy went to the senior prom with Miles, and they graduated together from Ripley High School in 1972. I remember seeing Miles play the lead role in that year's senior play, Li'l Abner. After graduation they went their separate ways. Years later, in 1978, Miles went to a party at Kathy's house. He had missed out on an opportunity to try out for a Chicago rugby team, and wanted to try out in San Francisco. Their friend Billy made plans with Miles to drive there, and before the night was over Kathy had signed on as well. The three drove to San Fran in a Pinto, which was a real feat, as Miles was a big fellow. Miles stayed out west, and not long after, while at work one day, Miles was spotted by some industry folks who sized him up for the Tarzan role.

"I remember going with friends a time or two to the Keefes' house in Ripley. Their daughter Kelly was three years older than me, and their brother Coleman was another couple of years older, and all nice folks. While I knew them as the Keefes, the name O'Keeffe was the original family name, which had been revised years back. By the time Tarzan was released, Miles had reverted to O'Keeffe, along with at least some of the rest of the family, if I remember correctly."

I'm not sure if Miles is still acting; his IMDB credits stop in 2005, although he's listed as the star of the 2010 short film King of the Road. But like Mike Nelson, I am sure about one thing.

The man could beat me up.

I've got a VHS of MST3K's version of Cave Dwellers (a.k.a. The Blade Master, a.k.a Ator the Invincible 2) for one lucky commenter.