Odds and Ends and the Start of a New Term...

We enjoyed a productive summer around these parts, for the most part. My daughter attended day camp at Neptune Beach Elementary and had a fun time at junior lifeguard camp (a common rite of passage out at the beaches) later in the season. The kids learned aspects of CPR and other life-saving techniques, and they swam in the ocean and came home happy and tired each day. She is off and running for fifth grade and will be playing soccer on Saturdays at UNF this fall.

My son is doing well with his letters, numbers, and shapes. He enjoyed water days at his daycare center, and he loves Italian shaved ice. Luke is learning how to hold his own with the big kids on the street in neighborhood basketball games, and he loves watching Goosebumps with his big sister.

I'm excited to begin a new term at Florida State College at Jacksonville today. I have new curriculum in a pair of classes, and my course on the philosophy of horror is almost full. I can't wait to explore those texts with our students! We are reading Bradbury and King extensively, with articles by Oates, Barker, Barron, and Dickstein. 

I have spent fourteen years jogging various nature trails in Jacksonville. In all of that time, I've never seen an alligator on the trail unless it was within sight of a major body of water. 

In the last three weeks, however, I've had two such encounters!

Three weeks ago, I jogged out to the birding platform at the Round Marsh. I stretched and had a little quiet time for meditation before heading back up the trail. I was a half mile into my run when I glance up the path and see a large creature lumbering toward me. It was about a quarter of a mile away, so I wasn't sure about what it might be.

Sure enough, it was an eight-foot alligator. That sucker was covered in lime-green duckweed. It was up doing the gator walk, but it stopped and hunkered down when it saw me. 

There was no way that I was getting around it, so I had to backtrack and take an alternative route. It was exhilarating, to be sure, but I couldn't help but feel a bit nervous on the return journey.

For those familiar with the area, I encountered the gator just west of the Willie Browne Cabin.

Last Wednesday, I stopped at the Jacksonville Arboretum for a run and I encountered a little three footer at the entrance to the Live Oak Trail. It cracked its mouth open at me and stared me down. I took two steps backward and it kept on trucking--right into the heart of the woods! 

I've walked a lot of Florida trails. I've even been off trail at the GTM Preserve (with the aid of rangers), but I've never seen an alligator in the middle of the woods. Frankly, it's a scary thought. It makes sense they would be there, of course, but it's not a common occurrence. I was shocked when I met the big one, but then seeing that little guy last week was really odd. 

Oh, well...back at it today. 

My wife is doing well at Fletcher, and I enjoyed a productive summer at the word processor and in the classroom with students at FSCJ. I think we completed some quality work, and I am excited for the fall term here at the College. Our new president, Dr. John Avendano, strikes me as an intelligent, inspirational leader. I was very impressed with his candor and attitude last week at Convocation.

I don't often jog with a camera (or a phone, for that matter), but I might have to start bringing one in order to document my encounters with Florida fauna. This is an amazing place to live and in which to spend time outdoors, and I am thankful for the chance to get out and enjoy it...


Taking Stock at Forty-Two

You've probably heard this one before. I first encountered it years ago, while playing golf with a gentleman a decade or two my senior. I'm paraphrasing, but he told me something a bit like this:
If you're young and not a Democrat, then you have no heart. If your older and not a Republican, then you have no common sense.
I bring this up only because I had a birthday a few weeks back. I'm no sage, to be sure, but I thought I'd test my mileage with that saying above and maybe offer up a few insights on the view from here:

  • People are inherently decent. If you treat others with respect, you stand a much better chance of getting respect in return.
  • Honor your time and use it. Time may be a human construct, but it keeps us on track. An important personal mantra, by the way, when it comes to time management: Do it now.
  • Memorialize your life. Buy souvenirs. Take (and print) photographs. Collect things (within reason). They all add up to a record that you'll be thankful for later in life.
  • Be considerate. Let someone else into the flow of traffic once a day when you're out on the roads. It makes everyone feel better and shows a shared humanity.
  • Read. Write. Run. I can think of nothing better than that trio if you want to stay engaged with the world, your community, and with yourself. I read widely. I write every day. I run often. These things keep me interested in life, connected to my creative side, and healthy in my mind, heart, and lungs.
  • Count your blessings. At the end of the day, it's human nature to fall into that trap of coveting what others might have. In reality, though, things could always be worse. I'm more thankful now for the good things in my life than I was a decade ago, and it's simply a matter of perspective.
  • See the forest for the trees. How can you be your best self? If you trudge from tree to tree, your head down, you'll never look up and recognize the beautiful forest that is your own life. I try to take stock of things periodically, and I want to be my best self in my forties, my fifties, my sixties, and so on...
  • Celebrate! When good things happen or when you accomplish something that you've been working for, celebrate it (and memorialize it!) with others.
  • Be mindful. Whether it's prayer, meditation, yoga, or simple solitude, find moments to be alone with your thoughts. Knowing yourself and being comfortable with yourself is (and always has been) a salve for modern malaise...
  • Embrace your passions. If you love something, honor it (Go Ducks!)...
  • Help when you can. I try not to say 'no' when friends call for help if I can pitch in. As a great football mind once said, the best ability is availability (yeah, yeah...I guess I can help you move.).
  • Be thankful. I have many blessings for which to be thankful, and I am fortunate every day for them.
This is a small list, of course, but these are just a few of the maxims that I try to consider in my daily lived experience. 


True Detective: Season 3

Image result for hbo true detective season 3We live in a golden era for television programming. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Outlander, American Gods, and The Sopranos are classics of the new millennium. I really enjoyed the first season of HBO's True Detective, but the second season left the rails early and never quite found its way. I think I gave it up at about the midway point, so I didn't really have any expectations for season three when I noticed that the newest installment in this gritty, atmospheric series was available for streaming.

Boy, am I ever thankful that I gave it a chance. 

I streamed the third season over the course of three days, and it was an utterly absorbing piece of storytelling. Writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto excels at writing compelling dialogue, and he gives his characters plenty of room for depth and development. Season 3 is populated by complex, three-dimensional characters that are struggling to move forward in difficult circumstances. The grim shadow of the Vietnam War stands over the narrative segments taking place in 1980, and the sorrowful spectre of dementia clouds the latter segments taking place in the recent past.

Mahershala Ali is spellbinding as Wayne "Purple" Hayes. Hayes is dignified, fiery, intelligent, loyal, and stubborn throughout the series, even as his mental faculties fade with age. Ali's timing and ability to emote are amazing. He might be the best actor working today...

Stephen Dorff plays Lt. Roland West, and he is excellent in the role. While always loyal to his partner Hayes, West is more than willing to play along with the politics necessary to advance in his position with special investigations. Dorff delivers a consistent, complex turn in playing West, and his proclamation late ("What about us?" he says to Hayes as their partnership disintegrates) in the series will stick with you.

This is a story about the power of family. Some families are broken by circumstance. Some are ravaged by tragedy. Some are wrecked by addiction or parental nihilism. 

But as you watch this show, it's impossible not to think about your own youth and your own relationships with siblings and parents. It's impossible not to consider how chance and circumstance can intervene on a human life, sending a person down an entirely different pathway. 

I became engrossed in the series. It's both a personal and philosophical juggernaut, and--like The Haunting of Hill House--is well worth your time... 


Horror Culture in the New Millennium: Digital Dissonance and Technohorror

In 2016, I began playing around with the idea of writing a non-fiction text that might explore the changing face of dark storytelling. I have always loved weird fiction, and I'm thankful that my parents encouraged me to read widely from an early age. When I was a kid, I devoured the catalogs of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and John Bellairs. I watched Monsters, Tales from the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone as often as I could. I relished Halloween and the changing of the seasons, and as I matured, my appreciation for science fiction, fantasy, and horror deepened and became more nuanced. 

I was fortunate to conduct interviews for Horror Culture in the New Millennium with many of the authors that I now admire. It was an invigorating piece of writing because I was able to synthesize so many of the stories that I love within a philosophical framework that illustrates the saving power of dark storytelling. 

As Joe Hill notes in this engaging interview, technology enriches the human experience immeasurably, but there is also an inevitable element of loss as we gradually adjust our customs and behaviors. I wanted to wrestle a bit with the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of that loss as communicated in our narrative tradition.

This book explores technohorror and digital dissonance--a pair of concepts located at the center of our modern literary culture. It comments on the changing face of folklore and interrogates such subjects as human longevity, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and posthumanism. 

I am very thankful to Nicolette Amstutz and Rowman & Littlefield for believing in the project and for doing such a phenomenal job of producing this book. The text will be available next week!


The Beauty of The Haunting of Hill House and the Saving Power of Horror

Image result for the haunting of hill house IMDB
Nell Crain has a Hard Day
Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House is almost a perfect piece of filmmaking. The ten-part Netflix series is compulsively watchable, brilliantly acted, carefully paced, and beautifully shot. It's been some time since I watched a show that packed this much emotion and artistry into such a consistent and unified piece of storytelling. 

From the opening sequence, Michael Fimagnori's camera explores Hill House both steadily and quietly. Shots are staged so the rooms loom over the characters, and the hushed approach to exposition builds tension and fosters serious dread in the viewer. You won't listen to your own home settling the same after hearing the tap of a cane on hardwoods or the scratching in the walls. Sixteen years ago, when Jeanne and I were married, we lived in an apartment complex that had some of that scratching in the walls. It was so unsettling to come awake in the wee hours to the sound of scurrying rodents separated from our heads by a few millimeters of cheap drywall. 


The Haunting of Hill House hits the ground running, and it only becomes more engrossing as Flanagan's careful approach to building tension and establishing atmosphere takes root. It is patient, careful storytelling--and it's that care with the details that makes the dissolution of a loving family so hard to bear as the series sprints toward climax.

Jullian Hilliard and Violet McGraw are simply amazing in their turns as Luke and Nell Crain. These are children who work their way into your heart. I saw my own kids in them, and I thought often of my sisters and our time growing up in a drafty old house in John Day, Oregon, while watching this show. 

Flanagan makes great use of setting. The sixth episode, "Two Storms," is stunning. As a long scattered and deeply scarred family comes together to mourn the second familial tragedy, the episode splits time between a pair of bewildering storms in two macabre locales--a sterile funeral home and the terrifying Hill House. It's an emotional juggernaut to see the terror on the characters' faces as they relive a horrific and resonant memory while attempting to reconcile the wrongdoings they have visited on each other. Siblings and parents alike struggle to articulate everything they've lost, and all the while Hill House and its evil grip on them works its magic. 

A house is like a body, and the way we live speaks for who we are. Hill House is a diseased body, to be sure, but--like the black mold blooming throughout its walls--its dark core isn't strong enough to break the Crains. That any of them survive at all is a testament to the power of love and family, and even those left to stroll their haunted hallways seem strangely at peace with their fate. At least they can be together...

Art represents one of the clearest conduits we have for understanding grief and reflecting on ourselves and our past. There is a cathartic, saving power in viewing aggressive horror stories, and this series is visually stunning, carefully crafted, and keenly written. 

It's also terrifying.

I found the conclusion of the series deeply satisfying. I've read contrarian views online about the final sequence and Flanagan's treatment of the Crains in the final analysis, but I thought he nailed it. Of course, my glass is always half filled, but I thought he made the correct narrative choice in wrapping up the first season.

Like American Horror Story, I think this show will feature different motifs and familial dynamics as it matures moving forward. The show's creators have already said the Crains will not be featured in season two. It's a great choice, as the first season was just about perfect and this family has already been through the ringer enough.

Grade: 'A'  


Fear the Walking Dead is...Well, Dead!

Image result for fear the walking dead
Jimbo, another unlikable character, met his end last night.
About time...
I think I'm done with AMC's Fear the Walking Dead. In its current iteration, and with only Alicia remaining of the Clark family, I simply don't find the show compelling anymore. I watched it last night and it occurred to me that the show does two things so consistently and repetitiously that it's become a joyless slog to even watch casually (it hasn't been appointment viewing for me in years, alas). It waxes (drones, actually) philosophical on the evil things humans do to each other without even remotely approaching profundity, and it has simply become a never-ending stream of run-barricade-escape scenes. 

Like its companion program The Walking Dead, the series began with promise and complexity. It was a character-driven ensemble with some impressive visuals and keen acting. Frank Dillane's turn as Nick Clark was excellent, and I always enjoy the work of Garret Dillahunt (John Dorie) and Colman Domingo (Victor Strand), but I've grown tiresome of Morgan Jones. Lennie James is a fine actor, but Jones's incessant moralizing, ridiculous staff wielding, and constant second-guessing is exhausting. 

We get it, guys. Morgan loses people. Then he loses himself.

The last two episodes have been nothing but characters finding themselves trapped before accusing each other of various shortcomings and getting away at the last minute. Oh, and they enjoy using walkie-talkies and they like to say, "Copy that." 

There is no compelling characterization here. Even Martha's (Tonya Pinkins) backstory didn't move me. The video montage of her losing her marbles was laughably bad and there is nothing in her whole, "I'm making you stronger" storyline that is even remotely interesting.

Oh, and how did she get away? I guess we just leave details like that out now. And I love how nobody even cares that she is gone. She tried to kill all of them, and they shrug it off like they missed their morning paper (people still get the paper, right?).

But, hey...Morgan has a plan and they're all going to Virginia.

This show lost its way after the dissolution of the intriguing Otto Ranch storyline. With so much interesting television out there on Netflix and HBO, I think I'm done with each of these AMC franchises. The Walking Dead foundered in its ridiculous Negan storyline and its relentless torture fetishism, and Fear the Walking Dead has gotten so desperate that it's including alligators and hurricanes in this aimless, boring, never-ending season.

Ugh. Last night's episode is my best contemporary example of a series that is ready to wrap up. Somebody needs to find Alicia Clark and her cool little carbine knife to put this thing out of its misery... 


A Trip Down Memory Lane

Stephen King's newest novel checked just about every box for me in terms of including everything I loved about the stories from the early portion of his career into the mid-1990s. 

Convincing and nostalgic representation of small-town Americana? Flint City is that and more, from the communal ball fields to the small-town police force...

Vivid, three-dimensional characters that we quickly grow to care about and relate with? Ralph and Jeannie Anderson, Howie Gold,  Yune Sablo, and Claude Bolton are living, breathing people in this story--complete with the biases and flaws that nicely balance their basic humanity. The text makes it clear--almost to a fault--that some of these folks are good people that did a bad thing. 

None of these characters is as authentic, though, as Terry Maitland. Coach T. deserves his own full-length story, and I couldn't help but picture a close golfing buddy of mine--a local coaching legend in his own right--every time I think about Terry. The thing that happens to Terry is terrifying. It's one of greatest fears, and he keeps it together better than I think I ever could, that's for sure.

Supernatural boogie-woogie based on overt childhood fears and a haunting legend? Oh, yeah. The Outsider is the physical manifestation of an infamous international legend, and he's scary as hell. 

Trusted characters from other realms of the King Universe? Holly Gibney shows up here, and she's a welcome addition. 

I read this last week and it kept me up until midnight two or three times. It's vintage King, and well worth your time...

Odds and Ends and the Start of a New Term...

We enjoyed a productive summer around these parts, for the most part. My daughter attended day camp at Neptune Beach Elementary and had a fu...