Stephen King's latest effort is a collection of four intriguing, longish short stories. Two of the tales, "1922" and "Fair Extension," dabble in the supernatural. "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage" chew on some weighty corporeal subjects--namely, the redemptive power of revenge and the nebulous nature of personal connection.
It's a compelling collection--a thought-provoking read that kept me up late a couple of nights and prompted an interesting reaction from Jeanne when I stayed up reading "A Good Marriage." That's a story about really "knowing" someone, even a spouse of twenty-seven years. I read that story and it stayed with me until the morning. I turned to Jeanne and told her, "If you ever need to know anything about me--anything at all--just ask. I'll tell you."
"That's a weird thing to say first thing in the morning."
I agreed and described the story to her; thankfully, the context helped a little. I think that's a testament to a good story. If it leads you to a discussion or a revelation beyond the mere reading of the piece, it's an effective work of literature. It's King's take on the story of Dennis Rader, Kansas's notorious BTK killer. The piece itself is an interesting yarn. I saw the conclusion coming, but it provided some catharsis nevertheless.
That's one of the themes that binds the four stories together--catharsis. The idea of release, of letting go, winds through each of the tales to good effect. Sometimes, this release is violent; other times, it's more subtly karmic.
"1922" is the most horrifying tale in the collection. It's also got the best voice--a pitch-perfect old timer writing a confession in his journal, surrounded by rats in a seedy motel somewhere, time quickly running out. It's King at his finest in terms of craft; I've said it before, no one does the epistolary better, no one does the creepy small town better, no one does an elderly narrator better (this one has all three, and a bit more). The truly sad thing about this story is what happens to Henry and his new wife in the tale's third act. That's a crushing narrative blow, rendered to great effect in this story of revenge and spite.
"Fair Extension," while engaging, is the shortest and least effective tale in the bunch. I liked the premise here, but the exposition is so brief that the payoff (the treatment of morality, greed, and revenge) is a little stunted here. Good, not great, story.
My favorite tale is "Big Driver." Tess is a perceptive, interesting character--a successful writer of cozies who is entrapped by a twisted woman named Ramona and her disgusting son. It's a frenzied tale of survival and revenge, one that doesn't skimp on hard details. Tess is a fighter, and I give this mild-mannered writer, who finds another source of strength inside herself in her darkest moments, a lot of credit as she deals with the events that happened to her. While not always plausible (I found the source of her decision to avoid going to the authorities paper-thin), it is satisfying. Like "A Good Marriage," it asks for some personal introspection.
King's writing is excellent here; his work is stronger in the last ten years than at any time in is career. These are hard stories, but they hit with the blow of a sledge and they deliver the goods. It might be an odd book to give for Christmas, but it won't go unappreciated...
We're heading into potty-training season around these parts. Lyla kicked it in regular underwear last night for about an hour; she was thrilled to be shut of the diaper. Still, she blasted her underoos after awhile and we had to get her set up with the cumbersome duty-catchers before bed.
Wish us luck for the holidays...
Over the next couple of weeks, I want to record my impressions of a number of fine stories I've read in 2010. It's been a slower year for me on the reading front, but I still chewed through better than fifty titles. I read some stuff that really resonated with me.
A number of my students wrote a short essay in an introductory literature class that I've been teaching this term. I asked this general question: What should an effective piece of literature "do"?
The answers were superb and as varied as the varieties of citrus in a Florida produce stand (which is to say that I had about five stock answers). The best answers were, I thought, variations of the following: Effective literature should stick with the reader and make him or her think.
I can dig that answer, and this year I dug quite a lot of good writing. I'd like to think I did some of my own as well. I know some good things are going to happen in 2011, and I'll post news when the occasion warrants here on the web journal.
In unrelated news, I'm a little confused by some of the stuff going on in national politics. I'm no fan of the tea party, for many, many reasons I won't go into here, but I do find it curious (to say the least) that guys like Mitch McConnell railed against porkbarrel spending and, yet, they included their own earmarks in a recent spending bill.
Oh, that's right! He put the earmarks in the bill before he was against them! You might want to revise the bill for your part in it, Mitch, before you open that mouth of yours...
Also, if you want a good look at the negative implications a spiralling national debt can have on our country, I recommend Ten Trillion and Counting. I understand why the Obama administration is extending the current tax legislation, but adding 900 billion to the national debt in two years is not sustainable--not for me or you or our children. It's politically expedient, that's all.
The economy is fragile, to be sure, but gambling that keeping the status quo and not paying for services as we go (especially as more and more boomers become eligible for entitlements in the next twenty-four months) is a risk that could be catastrophic.
In Oregon, John Kitzhaber is saying we need to go to a results-based government. That means across-the-board freezes in expenditures, and that will impact a lot of Oregonians. It's probably just rhetoric, not unlike the rhetoric that republicans used in November to woo the tea party and get elected before stuffing spending bills full of earmarks, but it's also an opportunity if it's a fiscal policy that is actually followed.
And the foundation of this ideal is better funding for K-12 and and higher education in Oregon, as well as relaxing some of the growth guidelines to attract more industry. Growth--managed growth--is good for that state.
Our country and our states need to proceed with caution. I do think there are positive signs of the economy turning around. In our zip code here in Jacksonville, the median price of a home actually went up 1.8% in the third quarter of 2010. That was unexpected. Also, petroleum speculators are predicting an economic turnaround, which means we'll be looking at $3.19 again before too long.
Sheesh. Lots of frustrating and conflicting financial news here today. Sorry about the buzzkill. Drink some dark holiday beer tonight and drop by tomorrow for a look at a couple of fine stories.
And finally, to wrap this up, I have to break my own policy and briefly mention a dream I had this morning. One shouldn't burden others with the retelling of dreams, unless in an engaging story, but right before Lyla woke me up at 6:00 this morning, I dreamt I was singing "A New Day Has Come" in front of tens of thousands of people. I was doing it acoustic.
Nobody was into it except for one little girl in the front, who was dancing in her chair.
These Jags are so much fun to watch, so infectious in how they go about their business. In 2009, the first year of Gene Smith's full stewardship of the personnel, the Jags had thirty-three new players. Thirty-three! Of the past two drafts (fifteen total players), ten are making regular contributions on the field.
Pot roast Knighton and Tyson Alualu are anchors on the line. Mike Thomas is a livewire on reverses and on the perimeter. Deiji Karim is burning kick returns and Zach Miller and Rashad Jennings are turning in excellent efforts each week.
David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew, the heart and the soul of this team (along with Aaron Kampman who, sadly, is on IR), have turned in great seasons. David tied Mark Brunell's franchise mark for most touchdowns in a season yesterday with his twentieth throw. He's also run a bunch of them in. Maurice now leads the NFL in rushing and awesome. This kid is too much fun to watch, and I'm glad we have him long-term in Jacksonville.
The Jags have always proved their mettle on the defensive side of the ball, and this year they are improving. Yes, they've been blown out a bunch of times this year. But in this current push for the playoffs (five wins in six games), they are both shutting down the run and responding offensively to match their defensive deficiencies. Our pass rush is much improved (Derek Harvey even gobbled up a sack yesterday!) and we are opportunistic in forcing turnovers.
This was supposed to be a stepping-stone year, but because of Indy's struggles and the Jags' resurgence, this team's efforts have pushed them into first place in the AFC South. It's the latest we've been in first since 1999. It's a great feeling, but it could all slip away if the Jags don't play well this weekend up in Indianapolis.
Seriously, we need to go up north and whoop those baby horses' ass. Let's work the play action to Mike Sims-Walker and Marcedes Lewis and gobble the clock with MJD and Rashad. Let's put Peyton on his butt and hold that anemic running attack under twenty net yards.
As they say in Big Cat City, we're just one week away from FEEDING TIME!
Thanks go to editor Angel McCoy for her kind treatment of the story, and to Philip Pickard, Scott McGough, Ms. McCoy, and Nathan Crowder for their excellent performance of the tale.
Alligators here are very cold. Won't you help them get warm?
The Florida department of wildlife estimates an alligator population of nearly two million in the Sunshine State. They live in swamps and marshes near you. You drive past them every day, on your way to work or school.
They are the silent, green minority, and they are cold.
How can I help? you might be asking yourself.
Lyla and I are glad you did. It's simple, actually. Go to your nearest bakery and purchase a loaf of artisan-style sourdough bread. They like the big rounds. Then, buy two pounds of heirloom tomatoes and a couple of cups of heavy cream, and make up a big pot of tomato bisque. Make sure there's fresh basil in it.
Then, all you need to do is keep the soup warm while you hike into the marshes, dispensing your tasty wares to the needy and deserving reptiles.
With Christmas right around the corner and many alligators struggling to stay warm at night, your kindness is much appreciated. These alligators are cold. Won't you help them get warm?
I was ten and had the stamina of a mountain goat. We could climb a couple of thousand vertical feet and I was ready for more. Still, some times the going got rough. You go up a hill and find a bigger one waiting beyond the next bluff. You'd knock that sucker off and there'd be an even bigger one behind that--one with a glacier on it.
That's how writing (and especially the composition of a novel) can be. I've had a major plot transition banging around in my head since last Wednesday. But with the holiday and the time I spent with Jeanne and Lyla, I didn't get any writing done during Thanksgiving. Then, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, I was working hard on grading and class preparation.
That transition kept eating at me, banging around in my head. I woke up early today, had a nice morning with Lyla and got her off to daycare. Before touching a smidgen of housework or grabbing a shower or anything at all, I sat down and knocked out 1500 words that I'm proud of.
A few of them might still be around after I edit.
More than anything, though, I think I topped off one of those hills. It's not downhill from here, but the going will be good for at least the foreseeable future.
Stories are born in sips and swallows (sometimes in lusty chug-a-lugs too, but I don't have that kind of time until January), and today I feel pretty full...
Those are the qualifiers I use when I think of people like the Oklahoma City bomber and the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters. Those are the qualifiers I now apply to one Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man accused of plotting a vicious attack on Portland's Pioneer Square over the holiday weekend.
Mohamud's vile intentions had been thoroughly deliberated. Throughout the course of an FBI investigation going back at least a year, he indicated that he had no remorse about killing children, and that he wanted to kill as many Oregonians as he could. "It's in Oregon; and Oregon, like, you know, no one ever thinks about," he said.
It's that quote that cuts me to the core. Between 1999 and 2002, we lived in Lair Hill. Jeanne and I walked through Pioneer Square daily. We often went downtown for Portland's many holiday celebrations (estimates had the number of attendees at 25,000), and we enjoyed them.
But something occurred to me on my drive into the office today. It was an image I can't shake--an image of what my hometown would look like in the wake of such a hate-filled attack. Torn bodies and burned children; shrapnel wounds and mass chaos. Fear--palpable fear--taking hold of such a good place to live and share community.
It's the second year in a row that some idiot has picked a major holiday (last year's Detroit airplane bomber on Christmas day) to attempt such an act of depravity, and that worries me. From the shoe bomber to the idiot trying to blow up Times Square to these last two examples, our country has been fortunate that these bumbling dolts have been less than intelligent.
But still, the frequency with which this sort of thing has been happening on U.S. soil gave me pause this morning on my commute. In The Stand, Stephen King theorized on the efficacy of flying planes into buildings. What seemed like fantastic fiction then has since become a terrible reality.
Every day we read about war-torn regions of the far-flung global community--about suicide bombers wreaking havoc on unsuspecting wedding parties and tourists on vacation. And we often dismiss these stories. We turn the page, confident in the illusion of security that attends to the notion that those are things that happen other places.
All of this, despite the fact that it's (so far) come to very little, is troubling...
I deplore the actions of those who would, in turn, terrorize peaceful, innocent citizens for the behavior of one terrifically misguided individual. And I applaud the Somali community for their efforts to bridge the cultural chasm that this incident has created in Oregon.
But through it all I can't shake an image in my mind of something that never happened. I can't erase a scene of my hometown--of my friends and, in my worst versions of this nightmare, my family--torn to pieces as a result of such irrational hatred...
- The Secret History of Fantasy: This collection is simply stuffed with compelling fiction. The critical essays and the editor's foreword are icing on the cake...
- The Living Dead 2: An overall stronger collection of zombie fiction from editor John Joseph Adams. This collection features darker, more mundane tales of survival in the face of the worst possible outcome...
- He Is Legend: A wonderful take on the theme anthology, this collection allows a great stable of living legends to riff on the best tales of Richard Matheson...
- Audrey's Door: Sarah Langan's tale of a haunted apartment building and the dissolution of a good person's sanity is gripping. Part Rosemary's Baby, part The Dark Half, this book is all frightening...
- Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King is a damned good writer...
- Harmony: I'll review this book in full soon, but it's definitely one of the best I've read in awhile. A scathing indictment of the nanny state, this is technology-laden dystopic sci-fi at its best...
And if you're looking ahead to anticipated releases, here are a few books that I plan on picking up when they are available:
- Sensation: Nick Mamatas's short fiction is keen; I'm looking forward to reading his work in the long form...
- Loathsome, Dark & Deep: I'm expecting supernatural suspense from the coastal climes of darkest Oregon. Aaron Polson's writing feels comfortable stomping all over genre boundaries...
Just a few titles of a great many quality reads out there, but this should get you started as you begin to hit the bookstores.
- I'm so into Oregon football right now that I'm not objective, but I think it's a dirty tactic for PAC-10 coaches to fake injuries to keep their defense rested. Look, Oregon recruits speed. Chip Kelly is on the record as saying he wants the fastest Division I football team in America (and with Kenjon Barner and LaMike James, he has two of these guys on one of America's fastest T & F 4X100 relays), so he recruits undersized speed demons. Then he gathers depth (our two-deep is just sick) and coaches them up. I've heard that on Tuesdays, all they do is run. They run to space, they run routes, they run and run and run. And if the opposition can't keep up, they've been flopping. I've seen it all year. It was shameless in Tennessee (the SEC lacks power and speed to handle teams like Oregon), and even worse last week at California. I know, I know--it's not illegal. It's just poor sportsmanship...
- David Garrard is playing lights out football. Aside from Micheal Vick, no one is doing it better right now. David is a good guy an excellent team leader. He often doesn't get his due, but after the cardiac cats' miraculous win last week, he's starting to now...
- And as for Mike Vick, I'm happy for him. I love animals and I think what he did was heinous. But he paid his debt to society when he went away to federal prison for a few years. He lost his personal fortune and still owes creditors. He'll never regain the acceptance of a large portion of fans, but I respect him for reclaiming his career...
- Realms of Fantasy has been on a long, strange trip. It's now found a home with Damnation Books. I read the last copy under Tir Na Nog Press and I have to say I really enjoyed it. All of the stories were good, but the tales by Jerry Oltion and Scott Dalrymple really struck a chord with me. These were darker works--less high fantasy and far more grounded. I'm not a huge fan of sword and sorcery, so the news that RoF is heading over to DB is good news for me. Publish more mundane, creepy fantasy and I'm taking out a subscription. Scott Dalrymple's "Queen of the Kanguellas" was particularly impressive. I'm a sucker for a good epistolary text, and this one has it all. Part captivity narrative, part familial allegory, it was a riveting read (albeit with a scene that has a particularly unappetizing stew!)...
I need to get on with outlining the ultimate anthology, dang it!
Set in Coastal Oregon (my old stomping grounds, and likely where we'll ultimately retire), the story is an updated take on Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I love the gothic, and I'm looking forward to this one from Belfire Press. Give it a shot; I think you'll be happy you did...
My wife worked for a period of time for the White Foundation before her current position with Duval County Public Schools. As an auditor of Florida's foster-care system, she saw, on a daily basis, the effects a transient lifestyle has on many children. She saw abuses--both physical and emotional--and she saw success stories too, although they were fewer and further between.
So when Florida finally granted adoption rights to same-sex couples last month, we both breathed a sigh of relief for many of those children. Our state is a bit behind when it comes to legislating equal rights for the same-sex community, so this was a big step forward.
And then you read about a school administrator who illustrates the other side of the coin. This man's hate-fueled vitriol only diminishes the national debate, in my view. I like and respect Leonard Pitts, Jr., very much. Keen writer, strong theorist. But in my view, when you get this type of bile, it only encourages the portion of the population that gets it the least:
Meet Clint McCance. He’s vice president of the Midland School District in Arkansas and he apparently felt put out by a call for people to wear purple as a means of highlighting the bullying problem in the wake of five recent suicides by gay teenagers. So he went on Facebook to vent.
“Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers committed suicide. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE.”
My wife has worked hard to get the folks responsible for Challenge Day to conduct their workshop at Forrest High School. They will be there throughout the week, for what will be a series of emotionally draining exploratory lessons. It's programs like these that go a long way toward erasing ignorant statements like the one above...
And it was likely that they still carried their poisons, though Liam was long beyond caring. He took shelter when the wind blew, when the devilish cyclones formed in the warmer months to erase the dim light of the hidden sun, but he no longer feared the storms.
If they killed him, then he would be dead.
The series, based on a series of comics written by Robert Kirkman, who has an excellent story in the recently released The Living Dead 2, shows a lot of promise.
I've heard that zombies are the next vampires. Whatever. Maybe Steph Meyer is bunkering down in some subterranean Provo money-lab, ruminating on how she can instill some wholesome family values in the undead canon.
I mean, seriously...zombies? I love to write the stories and I dig reading the good ones, but I think the wave crested with Romero's Land of the Dead, many years ago. I can be corrected by an awesome text, of course, but I just don't expect one--written or visual. If zombies are "new," then I'm extremely "old."
AMC does a fine job with The Walking Dead. They enlisted one of my favorite storytellers in Frank Darabont to produce the series, and to write and direct the first episode. It feels like vintage Darabont--intentional, artistic...carefully expositional.
I like that Frank takes his time to establish character. When Grimes returns to the same park that was the scene of one of his first horrific encounters, and when he enacts a sort of cathartic release (I'm sorry this happened to you, he says, as he pulls the trigger on a legless zombie), we begin to feel for him. It's pathos, people, and Darabont knows how to push those buttons.
Episode one is quietly horrific. That, in my view, is how it should be. Roads clogged with abandoned cars. Cities bereft of their denizens. Silence. Those elements make for a chilling narrative.
In the third act, things become decidedly difficult. There's a horrific scene with a horse, a live-or-die moment with a tank.
But this series will live or die with its attention to humanity and, with Darabont behind the curtain, I'm confident that will be its focus. It was the highest rated series opener in the history of the network. It will have some traction, and it might spike a mini-revival in the zombie canon.
But it doesn't do more for cable television than Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead did for the silver screen. Heck, it's not even (right now) as good as Breaking Bad.
But the good thing is that it can be that good. There's an old adage: you can't win a pennant in the first month of the season, but you sure as hell can lose one.
Well, at least in this case, Darabont and crew are still in line for the big prizes that await at the end of the year.
Do you want to?
This is a case of poor behavior from the outset, and an even more distasteful series of responses after the fact. I've been reading a lot about plagiarism on the net these day; this anecdote, given the circumstances that it's an actual editor spouting this fallacious drivel, gives more than a little credence to some of these stories...
Harry Brown (2009) is an ultraviolent British film that looks deeply into that nebulous cauldron of morality. The story of a widower and ex-serviceman bent on exacting a form of brutal revenge on behalf of his slain best friend, this worthy little film works on a number of levels.
Among the motifs it examines are generational differences (Harry and Leonard are suit-wearing standard bearers of the old guard), a devaluation of humanity, the responsibility of community stewardship and the redemptive powers of violence.
Early on, the audience sees an act of such utter depravity--a vicious, unprovoked attack on a young mother--that establishes an important contextual marker for the film: these kids simply don't care. They don't care about themselves and whether they will live or die, and they sure as hell don't care about others in their communities. The random nature of this early scene is perplexing, but it's not out of the ordinary. A few years ago, a man was shot on Halloween night here in Jacksonville for opening his door to hand out candy. That crime was never solved. Last year, a fifty-three-year-old pizza delivery driver was killed for less than twenty dollars. A man was recently shot to death at a gas station on the Arlington Expressway by a trio of youngsters; they took $3.00 from the man, and it's been widely reported that he would have given them the money if they had merely asked for it. There are literally hundreds of violent crimes committed by youthful offenders in Florida every year, and if there is any trend in their perpetuation it's that they are becoming increasingly brazen.
Harry Brown paints these kids in vivid detail. They are uneducated, manipulated by their elders and completely without respect for others. They peddle drugs, lay about having sex all day and intimidate any community members from using the roadways. Rioting is a form of entertainment (at one point Brown spits those very words, clearly distraught that the children of this generation don't actually believe in anything).
I see a film like this and it always leads me back to the kids. Why are they hanging out in the underpass? Why are they living a life where entertainment is attacking the elderly, where rape and sexual assault are looked at as cultural norms? Does no one care for them? I mean, are they not sons and daughters and sisters and brothers?
How did they arrive at this place in their lives? When you engage in that discussion, it ultimately drops you back here--at the problem of evil. That's a theological and philosophical quagmire (albeit an interesting topic to wrestle with) that looks at both the deductive and inductive proofs for the existence of God, as well as the nature of evil.
In films like this, and like The Brave One and other revenge fantasies (I'm still looking forward to the I Spit on Your Grave remake), the antagonists are almost always caricatures. They are drawn so sparsely that you almost wonder if these writers and directors do it on purpose, as though they want their actions to become the characters. Then, we can believe that the characters themselves are truly evil.
And that's another major question I have on the topic. Do the people who do these things, that commit murder and rape and intimidate old ladies and beat their children and domestic partners--are they always "on"? Or do they do the things the silent majority (the film's language) does, like send their mums birthday cards and stop to ponder the beauty of the evening stars?
Or, are they always just being "evil"? If so, what made them that way, their brain chemistry or their upbringing?
And, is Harry Brown "evil" for dispatching these thugs with bloody aplomb? The hard-fought turf war that Brown wins here is not like the freedom won by Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino. Here, the winners and losers aren't separated at all.
So as you can see by my ramblings here, this film raises more questions than it answers. That's a good thing, and it's a good movie. Daniel Barber's vision is dark and sterile, the South London projects gritty and eerily homogeneous. Caine is wonderful here--believable as a capable killer and also as a doting husband and loyal friend. The violence will turn a large portion of the audience off. The wounds here are audio friendly--lots of gurgling and spurting--and the deaths in the pub in the third act are, like much of the film, very upsetting.
But it's worth a watch, then a digestion, and then a rumination, and then a discussion.
I mean, why? Why do some people do these things?
But I can't stand it when folks call into the radio shows, seeking the advice of fantasy football "experts." Seriously? Experts? On giving advice about watching football and deciding which players you should play?
If you have a fantasy football team, then you obviously care about the game of fantasy football, and you've gone one large step beyond a large percentage of football fans. You probably watch a lot of football. So why should you call into a show and ask someone else about which players you should play in a given week?
If you play fantasy football, then play it! Don't ask others about how to play it!
In unrelated but sort of barely tangential news, please read this post by Scalzi on writing.
Listen, you either write or you don't. Just like you either play fantasy football or you call people to solicit advice on how to play fantasy football (nah, it really doesn't work as a clear parallel...).
If you go around making fiction with your mouth, you're not a writer, you're a liar. If you go around telling people about how you'd like to write, but you just don't have the time, then why are you talking to people? Shouldn't you just be writing right about then?
And if you say you can tell a story on paper but you never do it, then you're making fiction with your mouth.
Writers write, and then they also do the other stuff. They exercise, parent their offspring, keep an orderly house, maintain social obligations; if you want to write, then you should actually produce some writing. Amongst those other things.
When I can't sleep, I tell myself a story.
Some dumbass named Dan was typing on a keyboard. He had a blog...
It helps me sleep to create those stories, but if I never put anything together on a page, then I don't think that makes me a writer. Others views, of course, will vary...
But here's a refreshing development from my creative writing class at FSC this term. These kids can write. A few of them will likely publish soon. I'm competing with one, I think, in the upcoming Apex anthology, and I'm likely wormfood. His story has character and panache.
Bully for him!
I write this post because this is sort of becoming frustrating. Pick your own fantasy football players. If you say you want to write, write something down, all the way until you type the words "The End."
Or, if you prefer, just keep telling everyone about how you would like to write. Tell folks about how you've always had the absolute craziest dreams! And wouldn't they just make the best movies! If only you had the time to write them down!
Sheesh, your creativity astounds us (as do your dream recitations over brunch--seriously...stop it)!
I don't tell people that I write anymore (for the most part...occassionally I meet actual writers). It just sucks to have to shake my head every time in mock sorrow about how it's such a damned shame that the world was deprived of these fantastic tales.
Do it when you can, and produce something when you are finished. Tell that danged story. People would like to hear it!
Oh, and start Demaryius Thomas this weekend at home against Oakland. They'll be rolling coverage to Brandon Lloyd and Kyle Orton will need an outlet option...
Ours is a world in which, on a daily basis, we are blessed by the offerings of nature and the promise of a fresh tomorrow. For the vast majority of us, long-term plans are just that: somewhere out there, nebulous, beyond the next cloud or the next week or month or year.
But, and of course I understand that everyone who reads this blog also knows this, there is a population that can't imagine what that next cloud might look like. Cancer kills people, and it kills kids, and when that happens it simply shatters lives. Not a one of us knows if we'll have to endure such an experience, but we all see the reality of it in our communities.
Tom Coughlin is a damned good man. He's worked hard to make the lives of children suffering from cancer, and the lives of their families, much better. He has been very successful, contributing over four million dollars to the cause.
I'm not wealthy (not sure that I wish that I was, to be honest), but I was moved today to make a donation to this foundation. The Jay Fund does an awful lot to help those in need. They pay bills, they pay for treatments, they provide entertainment, they take care of burial costs--this non-profit helps with the reality of cancer.
I was driving home today and I heard a man from Lake City call the radio show I was listening to. The Jay Fund had literally lifted his family from the debris of sorrow. His son has gone through two chemo treatments; he is now in remission.
I want to help, and I hope that anyone reading this might also want to help. The Jay Fund delivers on its promises. Tom Coughlin's foundation is a staple--a foundational beacon--of the Northeast Florida community.
I thank those that give, and I'm amazed by the families that stand up to the beast that is cancer.
I've been following sports at the University of Oregon closely since the early 1990s. The university is well known for its track teams, which are perennially ranked among the country's best. They have a pretty rich tradition in basketball (their "tall Firs" team won the first ever NCAA national championship), and there are loads of Ducks in the NBA. We made the Elite Eight in hoops twice in the last decade.
But when it comes to football, Oregon has had a pretty rough go of it through the years. In the late 1980s, the Ducks began to be more competitive. The early '90s saw that trend continue. Then, in 1995, behind the strength of its "Gang Green" defense, the Ducks made the Rose Bowl. While they didn't win, it was a major achievement for Oregon to win the PAC-10. Since that time, we've been ranked as high as #2 (2002) and have become nationally relevant year in and year out.
Autzen Stadium is one of the loudest places to play, with 60,000 passionate, knowledgeable fans that pack the place ever Saturday. The facilities are amongst the best in the nation, thanks to our generous alumni, including Nike CEO and former U of O track athlete Phil Knight.
We owe a lot of this success to coaches like Casanova, Brooks and Belotti, but Chip Kelly has really taken this team to new heights. Even though we lost the Rose Bowl last year to Ohio State, I'm extremely proud of how those young men won the PAC-10. In this year of parity, the Ducks were fortunate to see Wisconsin knock off those same damned Buckeyes.
We're only at the midpoint of the season, though, and there is a heck of a lot still to do. The bullseye is clearly on our backs, and we've got tough games against Arizona and USC ahead. It all starts this week, with a Thursday night game at home against UCLA. I encourage you to watch; if you haven't seen Oregon play, it will be worth your time.
Coach Kelly has more depth in his program than in any previous era in Oregon football. This team deals in speed, and our players are young, fast and hungry. There is talent on both sides of the ball, and we haven't had to burn any redshirts. To be honest, we can be scary good in 2011--the team is great right now, of course, but the best is yet to come.
Also, I'm really enjoying The Living Dead 2. This anthology of original stories features an excellent assortment of both familiar and up-and-coming writers, and it focuses more closely on emotion and pathos than on gore or shock value. Full review when I finish it up...
Stephen King's stories are unsettling. So are Joe Lansdale's and Laird Barron's. I'd heard from a number of speculative fiction fans that George R.R. Martin's "The Pair-Shaped Man," which won the Stoker award for best novelette in 1987, was just such a tale. I read it last year and it blew my mind. It's a creeper--a story whose esoteric/exoteric treatment of perception and revulsion gets under the skin and festers. Martin's story is about usurpation, loss of identity, marginalization and judgment.
In The Twilight Zone: The Movie, there's a segment in which a young boy with supernatural gifts has the ability to create any environment he wishes. The adults in his world placate him, fearful of how he might exact his revenge if they don't. In one haunting scene, the innocent who stumbles upon this nightmare world is shown the boy's sister's room. The sister's figure is huddled in the dark, silently watching a snow-filled television screen. It's not until we get the reverse-angle shot of the horrified youngster that we see she is silent because her brother has removed her mouth.
That sense of inarticulation, of being trapped, is perfectly rendered in this story. Martin's observational qualities, from the eponymous weirdo's physique to his love of cheez doodles and scads of Coke, render this an uncomfortable read. I mean, the Pear-Shaped Man probably lives on your block. We have one on ours, I can tell you that--only ours is like 6'8" and shaped more like a giant string bean. When he walks down to the mailbox, that cigarette smoldering in his hand, I usually look the other way.
His smile...it's kind of creepy.
Of course, everything is relative; maybe to him, I'm the Pear-Shaped Man.
Martin's a gifted stylist and this one is a real treat--probably the most horrific of the stories I've included in my dream anthology thus far.
Nothing big, mind you. Just stark raving terror that a little sucker could hold that much inside of her.
We went to Georgia for the McGladrey Classic. It was a wonderful golf tournament--top notch on every level. I've never been hit with so many "ya'lls" in my life, and folks were very kind. I was eating a Southern Soul pulled-pork sandwich and watching the Bulldogs on the jumbotron when when of the tournament directors spotted me out and came to my table.
"How's the barbecue?" he asked, only it came out, "Haws tha bah-be-cyuh?"
"Good," I said, some red sauce slopping onto my shirt.
The tournament was awesome, and Lyla enjoyed it for a few hours before needing her nap. Jeanne took her to the motel, bless their hearts, and I stayed and watched Arjun Atwal's third round. Dude has serious game...
Anyway, we hit Brogan's for beer and Burgers after the tournament and then took a stroll on the pier and got milkshakes. We had Lyla down for bed for her usual 8:00 p.m. night-night and she slept through without an issue.
Breakfast was uneventful. We were on our way to Fort Frederica to appropriately dork out over local history when she started to barf like barf was gold and the price of gold had skyrocketed due to a bad economy, and all the barf in the world was scarce, so the more barf the better and she was trying to turn the Powells into some modern group of Flaglers or something.
That's not the best simile, but there was a lot of barf. Stinky, tart, acidic barf...
We cleaned her up and quieted her down (think of how that must feel for her--to have no idea what is happening or why!) and tried to move on down the road, but she got sick again. And again. Soon, Jeanne was sitting in back with her. She fell asleep and we drove home and got her a bath and some quiet time. Still more puke. She made it through last night okay, but her temperature has been sky high all day.
I cancelled classes and stayed home with that sweet girl. We had a good day, taking care of each other. She hates the old way of taking temperatures, so we plopped thirty clams down for a special ear-hole model. She hates that way too.
If she's still got a fever tomorrow, Jeanne will be home with her.
Sheesh. I know it's nothing more than a bug (still--two trips to Georgia, two illness episodes), but these little experiences just get under the skin. One wants a child to be healthy, and to see them in pain--even in such trivial circumstances--can be unsettling.
And on top of this, it turns out that I need to stop scaring her. All the Halloween decorations (and the zombie guy in today's metro section of the Florida Times-Union--it's National Zombie Day!!) have really scared her. No more luring her into rooms and jumping out, which is a shame, because she used to really dig it.
Ah, well. We're learning...
There are some shady characters lined up to take serious positions of power throughout the country. From Rick Scott and Marco Rubio here in Florida to Christine O'Donnell up North, we are seeing a dangerous cadre of inexperienced and misguided candidates for public office. Chris Dudley is not a shady character--in fact, I think he's a sincere and honest Oregonian. That said, his platform is wrong for the state of Oregon. His fiscal proposals stand to seriously damage low-income earners in the state, and I think he lacks the political acumen to effectively lead from the front. I'm not saying former governor John Kitzhaber is the remedy (although he did a fine job in his previous appointment, I thought), but I think Dudley needs some seasoning before he's ready to step up to the plate for Oregonians...
I'm using Shaping the Story and Jeffrey Ford's The Drowned Life as texts. I've fashioned the course, as was my custom in Oregon, into what I hope will be a rigorous workshop. Write, read, revise...repeat. That said, I like to look at interesting stories for inspiration (hence The Drowned Life) and I like a clear discussion of narrative theory (Shaping the Story). We'll season our discussion with a few snippets from Stephen King's fine text On Writing.
There's a passage in On Writing in which King, pretty humorously, cites a number of stories that inspired him to write--not because they were great stories, but because they were so astoundingly poor that King found himself thinking Hell, I could do better than this!
Those moments of epiphany have been happening for me a lot lately, only mine have been the antithesis of what King is saying. Peter Beagle, Laird Barron and Jeff Ford are the kind of writers whose work I'd love to place a story next to, simply because their work leaves an echo. It leaves a bruise, in some cases. When I read these guys, I get anxious to get to the keyboard.
The same thing happened to me when I was a kid and I read C.S. Lewis. My mom gave me an old typewriter way back then, when we were living over on Scotland Road in Pueblo, Colorado. It had a mostly dry ribbon that, when I really got to banging on that sucker, would suddenly clinch up. I had to straighten that thing out over and over again, until it would look like I'd just left central booking when I was done working on a story. Those were the days of perfectionism, so the pages were always covered with whiteout. I was a little OCD that way.
And I absolutely adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book really got to me; I internalized the plot and tried to capture the voice and I started my very own rip-off, only my kids found an enchanted chest with a set of stairs beneath the blankets.
The story was bad, but you couldn't have told me that. The story's quality simply didn't matter. When I was writing it, I felt the juices pumping. I felt the story, no matter how derivative (a word I probably won't know or understand until my fiftieth year in the world), was golden, and that I was born to give it life.
I mention this because I think we need to capture that sense of inspiration this week. It's all about possibility. We need to, as a group, get jazzed about building worlds. We'll do the theory and we'll read the stories; we'll study the structure and we'll work with postulates.
But more than anything, we just need to do justice to that age-old phrase: I have a story to tell you...
Barron's prose style is crisp and keenly observational, guiding the reader through landscapes rich with horrific imagery. He introduces us to three-dimensional characters--some courageous and some filled with treachery, but always believable. He dabbles with form a little here, writing in the epistolary structure; his stories are effective in both the first and third person. My favorite stories in the collection are the longer "Mysterium Tremendum" and "The Broadsword," although the short "Occultation" just lingers with the reader long after the final word. That one is a genuine creeper.
"Mysterium Tremendum" is the alcohol-fueled tale of four youngish bull males tramping through the forests of Washington State in search of a fabled ruin. A common theme in a number of these stories is a fascination with the black arts and, in this case, the men have come into possession of one bad little book: the Black Guide. I enjoy stories steeped in the esoteric and, while I know very little of the occult, the plot details in Barron's stories feel authentic. Barron builds the tension expertly here through the thoughtful perceptions of Willem, an essayist who finds the book in an outdoors surplus shop. When the hikers come across the ruins in question, they pay a steep price for their bold acts of hubris.
It's also a story of loss--a story about the loss of personal identity and the disintegration of meaningful relationships. Barron's eye for mundane horror and his ability to turn a phrase gets under the skin. Consider this passage, as Willem confronts an apparition that has appeared in his living room:
"This is an idiotic imaginary conversation," I said. There wasn't anything imaginary, however, about the searing alcohol in my burps, or the fact my head was wobbling, nor the flutter-flutter of my heart. "Shoo, fly, shoo."
Tom didn't answer. The cherry of his cigarette dulled and blackened. A split second before his shape merged with the darkness, it changed. The room became cold. A woman said, There are frightful things. I couldn't tell where the whisper originated. I finally gathered the courage to switch on the lamp and I was alone.
The simplicity in the statement There are frightful things is the beauty of Barron's ability to unsettle. His stories are peppered with elegant and mundane phrases and observations that simply pucker the hair on the forearm.
"Occultation" is a lesson in narrative economy, a short tale that reminds me of William Friedkin's underrated film Bug. A couple is drinking tequila in a rundown hotel room in the desert, frightened by a shifting shadow that could be nothing more than a water stain on the wall across the room. Of course, it might be something else altogether...
"Catch Hell" is another yarn driven by an examination of the dark arts. In this case, an obsessed anthropologist and his wife, unable to conceive a second child, visit an infamous ruin in Washington State with the hopes of getting pregnant. Oh, and how it works!
"Strappado" is a tale of sacrifice and thrill seeking, an examination of performance art and esoteric secret societies. Makes me thankful I'm not a hipster...
"The Broadsword" is a fantastic haunted house story. Man but there is some malevolence dripping from the pages of that story! If you enjoyed Stephen King's "1408," then you'll want to read this one...
"The Forest" is a rich examination of humanity's frailty and the power of personal connection. It's a great way to start a journey that only picks up steam as it progresses.
This is a great collection of stories--original, sophisticated, literate and damned scary. Highly recommended, particularly as we indulge in the first hours of the fall...
"It's good. I've seen it twice," she responded. I'm always interested in stories that create this sort of passionate audience response.
And to tell you the truth, I'd like to watch it again soon as well--just not for ten clams.
Inception is stunning visually. It's well played and I love Chris Nolan's approach to the feel of the film. The overbearing strings in the score dictate the tempo and set the tone. This is a heavy film, and one I hope will improve with time (I watched The Matrix the other day and it was just laughable).
Leo DiCaprio is an excellent actor. From the underrated The Beach to What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries and Blood Diamond and Gangs of New York and even Shutter Island, he's proven to be an excellent chameleon. It's nice to see some strong actors taking on speculative films, that's for sure.
But I wasn't even sure what Ellen Page's role was in this other than to be the decoder for the audience. "Hey, we'll cast Juno in the film and we can have Arthur and Cobb explain everything to her! The audience won't even see how lazy we are?"
Honestly, the film could have left more to the imagination. I like the subtle approach to the technology itself--two little pin pricks on the wrist and a little case with a button in the middle. Bam! I like that they didn't go CSI on us and show us what it was like to be a molecule barrelling through the bloodstream and into the brain of the sleeping mind. I'm glad the world-building was simple and didn't go all Pandora on us. That simplistic repetition of the various homes the Cobbs had lived in was, I think, a heart-breaking touch.
But I also have to say that I agree with many of the critical comments on the longish running time of this one. I think it would have been better had it wrapped up in two hours. Less explanation, more narrative...
Still, it's an intriguing and ambitious bit of film making that was worth a trip to the theater. I'd give it a B- with the caveat that I think I might like it much better after another viewing.
Next up in the queu will be Devil. I hear all the noise about MNS as a storyteller, but I'm just not buying it. I like a lot of his stuff and I want to give this one a shot...
And at its heart, it asks a very simple question: What would you give for the ones you love?
Also, I'd like to include a link to an essay I've found both instructive and inspirational. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorite writers, and her essay "The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists" speaks to me from so many different angles...
Sam Rockwell does a fine job in both of his roles, playing Sam Bell, a haggard astronaut isolated from his young wife and daughter on the far side of the moon while he works the harvest for Lunar Corporation, the Earth's leading supplier of "clean" energy (thing is, you can't call it clean when you have blood on your hands). Rockwell is funny in spots (the radioactive tampon line is hilarious), perfectly incredulous in others, and wonderful throughout. I think we'll be seeing him in pictures for a long time, and that is a very good thing.
I can't get too much into the film without spoiling it, so I'll just say that it's a steady, engaging picture that builds tension and deals with some interesting issues about what the future might look like. "We're not programmed, Gerty. We're people," Sam Bell says in the film's third act. It's that sentiment that stays with the audience long after the credits are finished.
Also, for those of you who wanted to read my alien-abduction tale "Dust Country" in hardcopy, it's now available in an alien-themed collection of Residential Aliens. Lyn Perry does an excellent job with that publication, and I'm thankful to him for reprinting this little horror tale, set in the badlands of Southern Oregon, in RA #3. Beware the dusty stranger!
The eponymous professor provides a great character study. After a semi-reluctant chaperoning of his niece to the local zoo, the incredulous rationalist is forced to confront a life with a philosophy-debating rhino who thinks himself a unicorn. As his relationship with the rhino (who travels to the university to listen to the professor's lectures) grows, we get a chance to see how shared passion and companionship make what seems like an empty life more round and vibrant.
The story, masterfully paced, sprawls efficiently across a span of decades. When the professor loses his one true friend at the university, the reader's heart breaks for the old man. When his career arches brilliantly into twilight, it is his horned friend who is there to guide him into the next phase of being.
This story is beautiful with a capital "B," and it's one whose impact on the reader will be felt for a very long time. It's a story that demands introspection, and asks us to reconsider what it means to be a part of a friendship.
Anthology to Date:
"The Small Assassin" ~ Ray Bradbury
"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" ~ Peter S. Beagle
Kowal's story is one of loss and revenge, and the responsibilities parents carry for their children. I know that last part should be self evident, but there's a whole population of parents that just don't see it that way.
Here, salt is precious--the most precious substance on New Gaea. Kowal deftly develops this central narrative element without exhausting it (a hard feat indeed when you consider the story's climax). To be sure, the tear guards and salties are nice touches.
And while I like the story's setting--it's vivid and well rendered--this is a narrative whose heart lies in the characterization. It's Theo and his self-centered demeanor and obvious disdain for his autistic son in "Salt of the Earth" that makes us invested in Melia's cool, detached revenge. This story is heart-breaking in some parts and cold-blooded in others. Very nice piece...
I re-read Stephen King's "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" today and I was struck by just how much I really enjoy his mundane fantasy tales, particularly the ones he sets in rural Maine and Oregon and Florida. The man, whether yarning on a plague of frogs in "Rainy Season" or describing the youth-restoring qualities of a shortcut through the badlands of another world, as is the case in "Shortcut," seems to really bring the goods in those cases. It's voice and its characterization, and the result is very often delightful.
Sorry about the tangent...
The long and short of it is (and I know many of you who might drop by here are students at the college who also dabble in a little bit of fiction writing) that Redstone Science Fiction is bringing quality scientific theory and fantastic fiction to readers on a monthly basis. Pop by for the fiction, but make sure you stay for the interviews. You never know when the next idea might kindle and ignite into flame...