Joe Hill

If you've been monitoring the graphic to the right, you know I've spent the last couple of days in the company of the stories of Joe Hill.

And fine company it is, to be sure.

I enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box. The pacing was excellent and the novel was laced with many genuinely scary moments. Jude, the story's protagonist, is a round character in every sense of the word. Flawed but talented. Eccentric but pragmatic when the occasion dictates. I really enjoyed the tender development of the relationship between Jude and Georgia, a character I initially thought would have been relegated to the sidelines. Hill's deft touch with communicating human tragedy--sexual and physical abuse most prominently--speaks to his power of observation. While the story is good here, it's the characters that make this a rewarding read.

I also really enjoy Hill's prose voice. His writing is beautiful--lyrical and literary without feeling the need to climb the diction ladder. Much of this effect comes from his knack for description. He bends adjectives and stretches verbs in a fashion that results in eloquent phrasing. In this way, his style reminds me a little of Cormac McCarthy's.

Heart-Shaped Box is good. It deserves its accolades and I'll put it up there with the best novels I've read in the last three years (though not quite on par with The Road, or even with Duma Key, for that matter)...It's very good, but not nearly as strong as his short fiction.

His short fiction, collected in 20th Century Ghosts, is staggering in its impact.

Not since I read Writer of the Purple Rage have I so enjoyed the content of the stories. Not since I read The Stories of John Cheever have I so admires the authorial voice. And not since I read Where I'm Calling From have I found such a consistently excellent body of work.

"Best New Horror" kicks things off. The premise is great--a weary editor finds that rare, transcendent voice in the genre that renews his passion for reading. Unfortunately, this author has his own demons. Hill's ironic story plays with lots of horror cliches without once stooping to caricature. And the conclusion! The man knows how to end a story...

"You Will Hear the Locust Sing" is an excellent blend of surreal fiction (strong nod to Kafka) with the detritus of life in America in the last twenty years. The protagonist, a confused but euphoric teenager that seems to embody all the traits of America's youth in the 21st Century, is both horrific and sympathetic.

"The Cape" is a unique look at squandered opportunity. "The Black Phone" is a brutal look at child predators and the just desserts that await them on the other side.

But like I said before, he really knows how to end it. And his last one here is amazing. "Voluntary Committal" is so perfect a story--so balanced in its narrative nuance and fantastic content--that it immediately elevates to the top half-dozen shorts I've ever read. I'd put it up there with "The Yellow Wallpaper." I'd put it up there with "The Lottery." I'd put it up there with "Cathedral." I'd put it up there with "The End of the Whole Mess."

If you haven't picked up this collection, I think you have an errand to attend to.


"The End"

I typed those words on Wednesday. It took a year. It took 86,000 words. It took a substantial revision (and there will be many more to come).

But I typed those two words.

It feels great...


Everest: Beyond the Limit

I've been looking at the first season of the documentary series Everest: Beyond the Limit. The Discovery Channel series is visually arresting. The cinematography and depth of coverage of the characters and their daily lives on the mountain is both beautiful and thorough. But I think this piece is a little disingenuous, on the balance, in its glorification of the mountain as a "prize" and not the dangerous endeavor that is its reality.

From what I can see of the mountain, the rampant environmental concerns that are well documented in books like High Crimes has been minimized. It's surely not there in most of the frames I see from base camp. If the filmmakers are sanitizing man's impact on the mountain, then that is a serious injustice. Based on his resume, Michael Kodas' (author of High Crimes) credibility is more than sufficient for me not to doubt the claims he makes in his book. These claims include piles of oxygen canisters, general rubbish and human waste all over the side of the mountain. If Discovery is not depicting the reality of our impact on the mountain, then it's a serious shortfall for this series.

The 2006 season features a number of characters long on courage but short on intellect. These folks literally try to kill themselves in their obsession to get to the top of this mountain, making the idea of "Suicide by Everest" a very real phenomenon, it would seem. I think the unique climactic challenges of the mountain, coupled with the random nature of extreme weather and the unpredictability of other climbers on the mountain should make Discovery's coverage stress just how dangerous this activity really is. But to the contrary, the piece glorifies the idiots who donate fingers, toes, noses and limbs to the cause of saying "I did it."

The original title of the documentary, according to Kodas, was Everest: No Experience Required. While Discovery wisely changed the title, the spirit of that message is clearly alive in this piece. That's dangerous. The vast, vast majority of the world's population should never attempt to spend a half-day above 7,000 meters, let alone 8,000. Climbers with chronic debilitating illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, asthma) and minimal levels of physical fitness often attempt to summit as part of a fundraiser. These people shouldn't be on the mountain! But documentaries like this one, fascinating though they might be as entertainment, only contribute to the idea of climbing Everest as a rich person's leisure sport. This is nothing like catching a marlin on light tackle, boys and girls.

This is your life.

I think the documentary, in terms of production quality and photography, is great. But it's not stern enough in illustrating the true nature of the beast.

Turning to theaters this week, the fare seems kind of weak. Stop-Loss looks a politicized war film (done by MTV studios, no less) that has some promise. I imagine the third act dissolves into an emotional hijacking meant to leave audiences weepy. American Zombie might find a couple of hundred screens. Yet another American zombie satire that looks like it can't hold Shaun of the Dead's jock...


What Are You Passionate About?

It's a great question. Life's not much if we can't keep that fire in the belly burning. I suppose my list includes:

  • Spring baseball. I love the smell of freshly cut grass, a hot dog and a cold one and the Baltimore Orioles;
  • The challenge of kayak angling. I love the battle between man and fish and the ability to skip the boat through three inches of salt water and into a paddle-wide tributary;
  • Wanderlust. I love to travel. I love to meet new people and live in different communities;
  • Transcendent fiction. I love to read beautifully written dark fiction. I love sampling the varieties of prose styles and reading stories that make me hold my breath for pages at a time;
  • Food. I love to cook it. I love to eat it. I love to talk about it.

  • My wife. She's the best;

  • The movies; I love almost everything about the theater. The smell of popcorn. The thunder of the sound system. The lives of others unfolding there, right before my eyes;
  • Helping others. I love my job at the college because I get to work with so many great people. The students and colleagues I have at Deerwood make work fun.

  • My life. I really like my life.

So let me put the ball in your court. What are you passionate about?


A Bite-sized Morsel--Postcards From Hell

Here's a nice little market that publishes flash fiction in an online format. I've enjoyed many of the stories on the Postcards From Hell side, and they also accept science fiction...


Generational Gaps in Voice/Tone/Content

Maybe it's just the fact that I've been saturating myself with the stories found in the ten issues of The Twilight Zone Magazine that I purchased on e-bay a couple of weeks ago, but it seems like tone and style are two storytelling elements that run pretty cyclically in the realm of popular short fiction.

The magazines I purchased come from 1985 and 1986. There are between seven and eleven (!) short stories in each issue. They come from authors such as Goulart, King, Campbell, Barker, Leiber, Wilson, Bloch, Matheson, Grant and many, many others. TZ seemed very thorough in its inclusion of emerging voices, and the sheer number of stories far outshines most genre print magazines in the field today.

One of the observations I've made in looking at the stories published in this twenty-four month period is that they predominantly share a bizarro sensibility to them. A great majority reverently skewer emerging technologies (we were on the cusp of the cellular age back then) and poke fun at computers. Lots of them share a surreal approach to plotting. A great many include hallucinogenic vignettes and plot tangents. But to see that they are so uniform in these things is really interesting to me.

I suppose it's just the way of this business, though. When Palahniuk's Fight Club broke through in a major way, I think that dystopic, anti-corporate sensibility that made the novel work was popular for at least twenty-four months in genre fiction. Clearly, the success of the Harry Potter stories has been so thunderous that now many agents groan under the weight of all the queries stating they have touting the next boy wizard in the making.

And authors run in waves like this as well. King's short stories from the '70s had a lot more bite to them. They weren't as poetic as his later stuff, not by a long shot, but they certainly went for the groin--on the whole. Think Night Shift and Skeleton Crew and compare those with the longer and more theme-based works from N&D and Everything's Eventual.

I'm not saying anything unique here. Writers evolve. Writers devolve. Writers become fascinated by certain ideals. Writers get mired in ruts. All of it is part of the process.

Which brings me to 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill. I'll get into this book more closely down the road, but I can say that in all of my reading in the past year or so, no one is doing what this guy is doing with the short story. His work here is fascinating, unnerving, lyrical and gritty all at the same time. Tremendous stuff.

Oh, and if you want to pass ten minutes on a great short story, take a look at Chuck's story "Guts." Sadly, there was a fatality last week that eerily echoes the plot of this tale...


Finding a Champion

In an interview with Colin Covert, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Judd Apatow (the creative force behind Superbad, Knocked Up and Freaks and Geeks) discusses why he switched from television to the movies:

I could never crack the code of how to get anybody to watch the shows that I was making. There are a lot of great shows that hang by a thread; they have one supporter at the network who allows them to continue. Whether it's Seinfeld in the early years or 30 Rock now, they had champions. I never had that. So my things disappeared before they even finished one season. It was really heartbreaking, and I thought maybe I can find better partners if I work in film. I write a script and I decide to sell it only to a person who gets it and is really excited about it.

It's a telling comment about the need for support in creating art for broad commercial appeal. Behind every book there's a stable of individuals that are passionate about that project. The key is to find that synergy--that connection--and then cooperate on producing the best piece of art possible.


Doomsday = Cinema Casserole

Let me preface this by saying I detest casseroles. When I was a kid, I was fiercely pro-segregation when it came to my food. I hated it when the run-off from some crappy vegetable mingled with my rice or mashed potatoes. I couldn't stand it when my bread would get soggy from some sauce or another running across the plate.

And it didn't help to have my parents parroting that tired ass "It all goes to the same place" argument at me all the time.

And that's basically what a casserole is, right? You take a bunch of the leftover funk in your refrigerator and add a can of cream of mushroom soup and a layer of those weird crispy onion deals and then bake it all for an hour at 350. No way. I can say with pretty good confidence that I'll never subject my kids to such a meal.

That said, I really, really, reaaalllllllyyy like what Neil Marshall did with Doomsday. He raided the fridge for some of the best in the pantheon of genre film and threw it in the oven at 350 and created a classic. Here's the list of ingredients for this fine film. Feel free to highlight any I missed, as I'm sure there are many:
  • Escape from New York
  • 28 Days Later
  • Romper Stomper
  • Mad Max--Road Warrior
  • Mad Max--Thunderdome
  • Death Proof
  • Running Man
  • Braveheart
  • Outbreak
  • 28 Weeks Later
  • 12 Monkeys

Marshall takes a dash of each film, pulls a fantastic performance out of Rhona Mitra and creates a devastating post-apocalyptic nightmare in this rip-roaring ode to the bizarre. Marshall keeps the pace frenetic. This one kicks you in the teeth and then moves on to your vulnerable spots.

It's an interesting look at social devolution, a virus in its own right that even seems to afflict our protagonist in Mitra's Eden Sinclair. In one particularly gruesome scene, watch as Mitra comes to her senses. Just prior to her gladiator-style execution, Malcom McDowell's Marcus Kane asks her, "And what have you lost?"

In front of a crowd frenzied for blood his words echo in her mind. Sinclair puts things in perspective and shouts aloud, "I've lost my fucking mind!" She then turns to dispatch her subdued opponent, but the message is clear: In times of chaos, absurdity is the rule and not the exception.

I can't think of anything bad to say about the movie. I know most critics have dismissed it and that many of you that read this web journal will consider it mule dung, but the movie is so preposterous--and so much fun--that I have to give it an 'A'. I can't wait to buy it on DVD.


Holy Baloney!

And lo, I shall appear to you in the form of processed white fish,

Any you will bring unto me gifts of tartar and lemon,

--The Lord

I don't know why any of us work anymore when you hear stories like this one. Why don't we all just look for religious icons in our food and sell them on e-bay? I mean, one woman actually sold her grilled cheese for a good chunk of change. $28,000 for a sandwich?

I love this lady's (we'll just follow the headline and call her "Local Woman"--she needs no further publicity for this foolishness) Q & A on the website. Did you folks know that even if you aren't Catholic you can bid on them? And they will bring you luck (isn't that a bit blasphemous, like idolatry, maybe?)!

Just in time for the holy days!

Combine this with my post below and you have to wonder about the character of some of these hucksters! I mean, they're fish sticks! They may suck, but they're designed for eating! Shove 'em in your fish hole and stay off of CNN, Local Woman.

Just in time for the holy days...c'mon lady. You should be ashamed of yourself.

The Odd World of Collecting

I don't profess to be a seasoned connoisseur of collecting books, but I acquire twenty-five or thirty every year. I buy ten or fifteen new novels--mostly hardcover first editions--and I try to attend a book signing or two. This Saturday I'll try to find the time to get to Neptune Beach's The Bookmark to have a copy of Randy Wayne White's Black Widow signed. I want to support the author and the signature is, honestly, secondary. Mostly I'd like to meet Randy, a writer whose blend of thriller pacing and literary exposition is second to none in the market today.

I pick up fifteen or twenty used books every year (I'll go well beyond that this year, as I picked up thirteen titles in one weekend at the Friends of the Library book sale), and I look for older versions--quaint designs and yellowing pages.

But I've never purchased a numbered or lettered edition. The cost is pretty steep, often climbing well over $100.00. I think it's great that a market exists for print runs of 500 to 1000 copies of these artistic books, but my interest is still in reading them and not necessarily keeping them in a protective slipcover.

Maybe that'll change down the road. Hard to tell.

But in the same issue of The Twilight Zone that I referenced on Monday I found an article about the rip-offs that abound in collecting Stephen King. And this was twenty-two years ago! With all of the ARCs and galleys and other special publishing editions floating around out there, it's no wonder that e-bay does such a rousing business in rare and special edition tomes.

The article I read, written by Douglas E. Winter, discusses the unscrupulous predators that look to dupe the unassuming. When Winter asks a dealer if he has a first edition of The Shining, the snide dealer disappears into the ominous back room and then returns with a mint copy of the book. Winter looks at the copyright page only to find the "tell-tale speckling of a Doubleday 'remainder'--an unsold book dumped to the likes of Publisher's Clearing House to be sold at a deep discount." Winter asks for a quote and the dealer wants 200 clams for that sucker. $200! Winter tosses it back at him. "You bought that book for $1.98! How dare you!"

"You know that," he said, "and I know that, but they don't know that."


Buyer beware, I guess. All that said, I'm happy blundering across cheap books that delight me for their cover design, content and quirky nature. I'm curious, though. Are there any collectors out there that read this blog? I'd love to hear any related stories that exist in the rare book subculture...



Ideomancer is an attractive market that is currently open for submissions. They accept a wide variety of genres and do still take speculative poetry (kind of a rarity these days, as many of you know doubt are aware).

Take a spin around the site and download the PDF...


Editors and the Phone Call

Writers of novel-length fiction both dread and revere the ring of the telephone. We dread it because it often interrupts the day's work. It rang twice this morning around these parts. One caller wanted clothing donations for missing children (we gave a batch last year to aid Vietnam vets). The other wanted to sell us Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets. Neither had a book contract, but to be fair I never asked for one from either caller.

But when a book is out on submission it's very natural to be hopeful when the phone rings. Writers are hoping it's their agent on the other end--the bearer of good news. I'm polishing my work in progress and attending to my duties over at the college, but a small part of me is also waiting for the Phone Call.

In the February 1986 issue of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine, Stephen King recounts his reaction to the bidding war that erupted over Carrie (his fifth completed novel but first sale). He mentions that Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday, called one Sunday afternoon and intimated that they could sell Carrie as a paperback. King expected a sum in the neighborhood of $5,000-$12,000 with possibilities of $60,000 on the table. The deal would call for him to split the advance, and of his $30,000 he states: "I could quit teaching for two years and actually get out from under the eight-ball and write two books, maybe even three if I wrote very, very fast."

When the offer came in at $400,000, King's reaction, to say the very least, reflected the enormity of his good fortune. "I hung up, and I walked around the house, running my hands through my hair, stopping, then sitting down for a minute and looking blankly out the window. Then I would get up and walk around the house, running my hands through my hair some more. The thought going through my mind was that I had to do something--I had to mark this.

After about twenty minutes, I finally decided that I was going to get Tabby a present...so I went downtown and bought her a hair dryer for twenty-nine dollars." So certain was he that he would be struck down crossing the street after his purchase, King says he "scuttled across those streets, looking both ways."

A great story from a gifted writer. And it raises a couple of interesting questions. How much research do you do into the backgrounds of editors? Do you keep tabs on which editors are acquiring which books?

Also, what will you do when the Phone Call comes? How will you celebrate?

Some interesting questions. And also, as a matter of minor importance, Portland State University (my alma mater) will play Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. Those Jayhawks better be ready...


High Crimes

In the fall of 2000, I read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air in one evening. Krakauer's intimate knowledge of the failed expedition led by Rob Hall in 1996 made this one of the most devestating narratives I've ever encountered. At times apologetic, Krakauer's book shined a light on Mt. Everest in a way that heightened public consciousness about the strange subculture that had found an obsession on its climes. The book chronicled the destruction that the huge camps of international climbers wrought on the mountain and the complex dynamics of the mountain economy that fed the fortunes of both inexperienced guides and the Sherpa community that served them.

Great, great stuff.

Twelve years after the climb in which eight adventurers lost their life, Michael Kodas delivers the riveting High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. In the last decade, things have only gotten worse on the mountain. Last year, better than 600 climbers topped off the peak, up from just under a hundred back in the mid-'90s. Kodas' crisp prose and meticulous profiling of numerous colorful characters makes this book sing. His proximity to some very shady climbers--at one point his guide contemplates the various ways he can sabotage Kodas so he doesn't come home--is fascinating. And his re-telling of the tragedy that befell Nils Antezana, an amazing and accomplished man, is both heart breaking and executed with respect.

Kodas outlines the backgrounds of numerous climbers. These people, abusive, driven and obsessed, have dedicated their lives to summitting Everest. They steal each other's equipment, not the least of which are the $400 bottles of oxygen needed for survival above 8,000 meters.

Here's a decent synopsis at the NYT.

High Crimes is a superb companion and update to Krakauer's book. Read them both...


New Pictures

We visited the Weeki Wachee River about a month ago. It was an excellent trip, and the Springs were a lot of fun.

Take a look at the pictures on
my website.

10,000 B.C. and Doomsday

"...the movie is a satire waiting to happen..."
"Apocalytpto for dummies..."
"A failure on almost every level..."
"Awfully dopey but also kind of fun..."
These are just a few of the choicest critical nuggets concerning last week's box office behemoth, 10,000 B.C. I tend to fall into the camp of the last comment in the list. Sure, the movie is a rambling, shambling spectacle that yearns to assert itself as an epic journey film but never quite approaches that film type. Sure, the characters, particularly the female lead, are dull. And sure, the idea of photogenic cavemen in trendy dreadlocks and perfect dental work speaking strangely accented English requires the audience to check their disbelief at the door--but that's the point of such a blatantly escapist film. I should call it a movie, in all fairness. This one, amongst all of director Roland Emmerich's numerous popcorn movies, truly deserves such a mantle.
And I'll give it a C+ and tell you could do worse for your six bucks (see it on matinee, to be sure) than this sucker if you want to be entertained. The flaws: the epic journey never materializes as Emmerich frames shot after shot of the protagonist cresting hills. The establishing shots are few and far between and we don't get any of the tedium or difficulty that makes the travel from The Shire to Mordor so believable in LoTR. Now of course, there are some differences in the scope of these examples, but Emmerich never stirs audience pathos in illustrating just how far D'Leh and Tic'Tic (yes, those are their names) have to go to topple one of two white characters in this film. Yes, the hissing dictator that enslaves all the other grunting cavemen races is white. Don't forget to put some half-assed political message in there on your way out of the editing room, Roland.
But I liked Steven Strait's turn as D'Leh and watching the mammoths crash into each other as they are herded through a canyon is truly neat. The level of woolly goodness in this film is worth the six bucks by itself, but you'll have to get over a needlessly corny moment in the climax when D'Leh frees the mammoths and one of them shares a moment with the story's hero. Who knew he could both speak English and communicate via telepathy with the enormous creatures with brains the size of walnuts?
Ok, I slammed it a little harshly here for the amount of fun I had in this one. If you cried when Bumblee lost his legs in Transformers then you need to see this one today. This movie was made for you. But if you want to laugh and enjoy some cool special effects and you can look at it for what it is--escapist fun--then take a look.
This week we get Doomsday, which looks like a cross between 28 Days Later and The Warriors. By better judgment says wait for DVD, but I'm sort of drawn to it and I think I might get a look tomorrow afternoon.


Florida's Wealth of Writers

I've written before about the tremendous number of top-notch writers that make their homes in Florida. From Hiaasen and Dorsey to Leonard and Hall, these folks are both prolific and bankable with many quality stories among them.

This "literary cluster" didn't escape the attention of the Sacramento Bee, and they put together a nice article here. Two years ago, Dorsey spoke at the First Coast Writer's Festival here in Jacksonville. A fan asked him why he wrote about Florida. "Just look in the papers," he replied. "Everyone's crazy down here."

It's just about the truth of it too. The plots these writers concoct are downright zany, but they aren't far off. Just two nights ago the police dragged a naked man out of a retention pond. He was high on crack and called himself an alligator whisperer. The same man lost an arm pulling this type of stunt back in 2006.

I read about a man with a pair of hooks for hands leading police on a high-speed chase at over 100 mph. It was his second high-speed chase...

And in 2005, one of our own here in Duval got drunk and stole an ambulance. He'd somehow killed a deer and when police arrested him in Georgia, the dead dear was hooked up to an IV in the back of the ambulance.




Clarkesworld is an attractive market. The design is sharp and its contributors include many of speculative fiction's finest talents (the current issue features Jay Lake and an interview with Kage Baker by Jeff Vandermeer). The website includes a forum, offers biographies on its contributors and features an art gallery with some provocative work.

Clarkesworld runs a story by an established writer as well as an emerging talent in each issue, so take a look and send them one of your best...


Progress and Odds and Ends...

Today was a long day. I worked on the WIP for six hours, and I think it's rounding into fighting trim. The third act needs polishing but I feel like I've stayed true to the pary line: Keep it moving. The chills are in tact and and I like the pacing so far, and pretty soon I'll be sending this sucker out to beta readers. Exciting stuff.

I won my first ever e-bay auction a week ago and the other day my prize arrived in the mail: ten issues of The Twilight Zone Magazine spanning 1985 and 1986. I also ran the Gate River Run (15K) on Saturday in 1:14:15. I averaged 7:30 miles after finally freeing myself from the bottleneck of the first three miles. It was a tremendous day and a great race. The wind was whipping, with 40 mph gusts, and the St. Johns River was boiling on Riverside Avenue and spraying the runners as we crossed through. Very surreal. Pictures to come.

And now for the news.

There's some bad stuff in the water, boys and girls. That old adage "Must be something in the water" might have more truth to it than we care to admit...

America is reaching new lows in our quest for entertainment. This show was produced by Satan, I'm fairly sure...

And speaking of Satan, the office of his nemesis the Pope issued the newest list of sins. Thou shalt not pollute the earth. Pretty fashionable to go green these days...

Winter's done here in Northeast Florida. We'll hit 80 on Saturday and the days are growing longer by ninety seconds each day. Very nice...

Pop by tomorrow for a look at another market.


Book Review--A Painted House

First, I'll share with you a brief news story that was sent my way by close buddy Doug Harrison.

The Police chief of Lansing, Michigan, says the city is ready for any attack, even one by zombies. "People can feel confident," he said. "If zombies start invading, we'll know how to close the streets. We can get chainsaws, too. If a swarm comes in on I-496 westbound, we'll block off the exits so they miss the city."

That little gem was found in the Oregonian's column The Edge.

John Grisham's novel A Painted House met with mixed reviews when it was first published in 2000. Many derided his pacing, one of the work's greatest strengths. And some thought he was in over his head after fleeing the safe harbour of the legal thriller that he had come to dominate.

I really like the book. Told in the first-person through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, A Painted House chronicles three generations of cotton farmers and their trials in Arkansas in the 1950s. The story is as much about the transition between eras--an agricultural economy toward a commodities-based economy--as it is about the brutal murder that stands as the story's central conflict.

I think this is a literary novel, and Grisham is right at home here in taking his time to really describe life in rural Arkansas. The major difference in this project and, say, A Time to Kill (a classic, in my estimation) is the different ratios of expository writing. In ATtK, Grisham sends the plot down the chute at break-neck speed. Here he can indulge in some very engaging characterization (I love the family patriarch, Eli Chandler) and really focus on the tedious, risky prospect of relying on a crop to remain afloat. Farm life is depicted with care and reverence and the audience's emotions rise and fall with the Chandlers as elements outside of their control--namely weather and work ethic--impact their ability to harvest the cotton.

I think Grisham doesn't get enough credit as a stylist, and if you haven't looked at A Painted House I think you should. I finished J.G. Ballard's The High Rise last night and it was also good--though the second act had some major flaws. Fans of dystopic science fiction will no doubt devour Ballard's caustic appraisal of social class in exurban London...


American Meth, American Gangster and 10,000 B.C.

We took a look at American Meth last Saturday. I was drawn to this documentary because it said it would take a look at the impact the drug has had on my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I was more than a little disappointed when writer/director Justin Hunt featured a ten-second rolling clip of the homeless in downtown Portland and nothing more. This type of coverage really represents the lost opportunity that is American Meth. The short documentary provides very little historic context in the discussion. It briefly touches on Mexico's impact on the distribution of the product, undoubtedly the largest issue in the changing face of this epidemic. The final interview is fairly compelling, but the rest of it feels...well, amateurish. In one scene (a montage of interviews set against music with background noise) the audio is so low the comments are incomprehensible. And the fonts used in the graphical information are minuscule and difficult to read. All in all, I'd rate this film at a 'C' as a piece that just never delivers on the promise of engaging its audience in a true learning opportunity on this issue.
American Gangster was decent (B-) but certainly not in the class of last year's top films. The second act seems to drag along beneath the police procedural of building a case and we never get a real look at Crowe's Richie Roberts. Because the back story on Roberts is so tissue paper-thin, we never develop a sense of pathos for his plight and can't really share in his obsession to topple Lucas' operation. It never develops the edge of an epic film like Casino, Scarface or Goodfellas, though it's clear that Ridley Scott aspired to such heights in the scope of the film.
This week brings attractive, English-speaking cavemen to the screen in Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C. Who knew they had such great dental care in those primitive years. What can I say? The dude did Eight Legged Freaks! Will I see it? Likely...


Levar Burton, 15K and Waterbeds

Before he was able to hook us up with a good book, Levar Burton was jamming to Cameo. Brothers and sisters, tell me: What's the word?

I'm running 15K on Saturday for the Gate River Run so if you're in Dowtown JAX holler at me.

Also, Joe Schreiber wrote a hilarious little flash story here. It cracks me up that his protagonist wakes up on a waterbed. Does anyone out there still have one of those? Just curious. Check out his blog. Lots of good stuff there...

Frightening Places--The Attic

As part of an infrequent series her at The Byproduct, this week's peek into the dark places takes us to the attic. Long before Sarah Michelle Gellar found a jawbone in the attic in The Grudge, this shadow-filled storage area made the heart speed up a bit upon a visit.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing a story about a young girl that inadvertently locked herself in a trunk while playing hide and seek. The trunk was in the attic and the distraught parents spent years looking for her. Then one day, while cleaning out the attic, they found her tiny little skeleton in the trunk. The lid of the trunk was ragged with scratches from her fingernails as she tried to claw her way out.

There's a variation of that story here.

That story has stuck with me all these years, and it definitely informs my fear of the attic. So what is it about the attic that makes it so creepy? There's the mystery inherent in all those collected items stored there. Because it's rarely used, it often is coated in a layer of dust and grime. Spiders nest there and the things that rustle in the night prefer to make their homes in the attic.

I still haven't gone up in the attic above our garage in this place yet, and we've been here pert near two years. I don't know that I ever will. And when I hear the house sighing in the middle of the night--when I hear that inexplicable knocking of something in the walls above my bed--I'll just put another pillow over my ear and wait for daylight...

King vs. Koontz

Whose writing do you prefer and why?


Cemetery Dance

Cemetery Dance is among the very finest purveyors of weird fiction on the market today. Richard Chizmar's magazine is an excellent collection of top-notch dark fiction, well-written non-fiction and reviews and creepy art. The magazine has published many of the finest in the horror field and is often home to crime, suspense and mystery stories with horror elements.

I've subscribed to this magazine through our library here at FCCJ and I use it in my literature classes to illustrate the quality and scope of the "small press," a definition I feel that CD Publications is revising with every passing year...


Writing Process--Rising Action

I'm reading High Rise, an interesting social criticism of both 20th century technology and the economic division of the white collar populations that often populate the urban core. J.G. Ballard is a pretty tremendous writer. I find it very interesting that his prose is so (comparatively) void of dialogue. He's clearly telling much more in this story than he is showing, but the result is marvelous. The first nine chapters are told from three perspectives.

The first three chapters focus on Robert Laing, a slacking physician from the middle class of the building. The second three chapters follow Richard Wilder, a filmmaker from the lower class. The next three chapters follow Arthur Royal, the architect that lives in the penthouse atop the monstrous condominium. Royal develops a God-complex as things begin to devolve around him, and the novel is steering toward a violent climax.

One of the things I've taken great note of in the last two-three years is the moment the action begins its upward tick (exposition, complication, crisis, climax, resolution). I like to take note of the page number when things seem to really begin moving in the story's central conflict. In this tale, it happens on page 33, but take a look at this opening sentence if you want a feel for the urgency Ballard instills in this yarn from the outset:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

The chapters are divided by scene-contained vignettes. On page 33 Ballard writes:

Like himself, Charlotte was waiting for something to happen.

They did not have long to wait. In the early afternoon the first of a fresh series of provocations took place between the rival floors, setting in motion again the dormant machinery of disruption and hostility.

As the text indicates, there had been an unpleasant incident that precipitated this "fresh series of provocations," but the reason I mark this as the uptick is that it illustrates the beginning of sustained conflict amongst the floors. As a person whose had neighborly discord (concerning loud music at 3 AM and strangers drinking in my driveway), it's been my experience that this stuff is dealt with fairly benignly. You have a chat and that's about it, because most of us (most of us) don't want to live in the constant state of paranoia and one-upsmanship that mark the battles we have over those living near us.

Ballard's text neatly captures the feelings of communal discord and shows just how trivial they are. The diction here trends toward complexity, but it's very sharp and consistent. And one of the things I'm constantly asking myself about the writing is, "So what?" You have to ask yourself that every day and then answer it by showing your audience something new. The mantra becomes: "Keep it moving. Keep the pace up."

Think about the story you're writing. Where does the rising action begin? Whether it's flash fiction or a great tome, this is central to how your audience will engage with your work.

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...