Audrey's Door

Audrey's Door, which deservedly won the 2010 Bram Stoker Award, is simply an excellent horror novel. Sarah Langan's rich prose and keen insights (her portrayal of the complex Audrey Lucas is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious) make this genuinely frightening novel go.

I was up late with this one, revelling in that richly delicious but so often elusive sense of dread that accompanies a good horror novel.

It reminded me in parts of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, but it's certainly got its own mojo working as well.

Scarred by an upbringing marked by poverty, transience and mental illness, Audrey Lucas has made a success of herself.

She is an architect and, for the first time, romantically involved with a man who loves her (Saurab--superbly rendered). When their relationship becomes complicated, she flees the apartment they share for a new place in a bizarre apartment building. The lodging is beautiful and the rent is cheap.

What gives, right? We've seen this setup before, of course. What makes this thing work is Langan's vivid descriptions and bizarre characters. God, but the people in this building will make your skin crawl!

I loaned my copy so I don't have access to verbatim prose, but her portrayals of the shenanigans and interactions between Audrey and the tenants of The Breviary are amazing. They reminded me of the dream sequence in Polanski's film adaptation of Levin's book. The sense of dread just builds and builds as you follow Lucas on her descent into madness.

I highly recommend this book. It's the best pure horror novel I've read in a long while, and kudos to Ms. Langan for pulling off such a feat. I think it'll be talked about in the horror canon for a good long while...


Moonrat Hits the Bigtime...

Congratulations to Moonrat for hitting the half-million mark on her indispensable blog.

Whether you're a publishing-industry insider, a bibliophile or a writer hoping to find out what life is like on the other side of the transom, you need to drop by her site. Advice, reviews, admonishments and genuinely keen writing abound.

Stop by and take a look around...


Welfare Brat

If you're at South Campus or the Deerwood Center this evening, Mary Childers will be discussing her memoir Welfare Brat at 7:00 p.m. We'll be watching the discussion in the theater at Deerwood; Childers will appear in person at the Wilson Center over at South.

This book is very effective in creating a productive dialogue on American social programs. It's also a gripping tale of generational struggle, the importance of education, the power of personal identity and simple perseverance.

Stop by if you can. I think you'll leave impressed...



We've finally had good weather. I spent the last two days on the practice course at UNF, and made six pars in eight holes yesterday. It's a wonderful place to brush up the game, and mine feels pretty solid right now. Time to get it going in Oregon next week when we head home for spring break...


Super News Flash: Cornell Can Play Basketball

Jeez! Just when you think things are starting to trend toward ridiculous in America, a man comes along and confirms it. Thanks Dan Shaughnessy for playing the stupid card on this column.

This article diminishes the fine school that Kentucky is. Look, those kids in the Ivy League can play basketball. I heard a long discussion of how this was a racial argument on the radio yesterday, and I don't see that in the column. What I do see is a little "underdog" worship at the expense of a fine academic institution. And I don't understand why these one-and-done players are so heavily castigated. I know the NBA is a private league and can determine its own rules, but the one-year of college rule is patently ridiculous. Look for still more Americans who would prefer to not attend college do what Brandon Jennings did and go overseas.

The parity in NCAA hoops renders just about any team capable of winning on a given night. That's certainly in evidence in this year's tournament...


Health Care Resources

Last fall, Senate Democrats began drafting a major overhaul of health care regulation. The bill was written, checking in at well over a thousand pages. It was stripped bare, killed, rebuilt and debated to death. It passed in the senate and then kicked over to the House where it lingered while Democrats and Republicans could attach all sorts of riders and changes (there was actually a very useful bit of legislation on student loans attached to the massive piece of legislation).

Six anti-abortion Democrats finally voted for the bill in the eleventh hour when President Obama promised an Executive Order denying any federal funds for abortions.

The bill passed yesterday, 220-211 (that was reported on the news;
www.jacksonville.com has it at 219-212).

We're done with all this controversy, right? Well, actually the bill is in the process of reconciliation. It now goes back to the Senate, where the myriad changes need approval. It might then get sent back to the House for a whole new vote. Of the previous 22 bills that have gone through reconciliation, 21 have done just that: returned to the House for another vote.

Like most major laws, there are elements of this legislation that I agree with and some I find tough to stomach. Nothing is ever perfect in politics, though, and this immediately does a few things I think are good for the American people. I know that I could have used that loophole to stick with my parents' insurance when I was back in grad. school at PSU (eligibilty now extends to the age of 26).

I think that, for those who have been denied insurance for catastrophic illness, and for those whose treatment exceeded an arbitrary cap, this is a win. I also see it as a domestic issue that will benefit millions of Americans in the near short term (2014 will be the first year of large-scale implementation).

I paid $189 a month for over two years as a healthy, non-smoking, male in his mid-twenties in Oregon. I never filed a claim. I only saw my doctor once in that time. Were those premiums fair? I don't think so (there is a plan in Florida that only costs $30.00 a month right now from BC/BS for healthy twenty-nine-year-old males). My hope is that this overhaul will bring some price equity to the table when the insurance pool expands.

Here are some links to help you make sense of all of this for yourselves:

Look, this is a complicated issue and there are reams of stories out there. There is spin coming from all sides on this. Read up on the legislation and form your own opinions...

UPDATE: A bill becomes a law. Gosh that was fast. What was that about reconciliation going back 21 out of 22 times?


Turning the Page...

About three weeks ago I went for a jog on the beach. It was a cold day; like much of the country, our winter has been a little rougher than usual. Six minutes into my run, I felt the muscle in my right calf seize. A knot formed and I could barely walk. It felt like a sniper had pegged me from one of those surfside condo towers.

I limped back to my truck and, since then, I've been using the R.I.C.E. method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) of treatment for muscle injury. I've tested it a few times, but I haven't had a pain-free run.

Until this afternoon. I just smoked a good one out to the Round Marsh and back.

As I write this, I'm looking at the nicest day in Northeast Florida since probably last September. I've got a gallon of tea steeping on the patio. I just picked up some steaks for Lyla's first birthday dinner, and we're going up to the park in thirty minutes when Jeanne gets home to kick the soccer ball around. I saw a school of reds muscling each other just off the birding platform, there in the oyster beds. Big fish, the whole lot of them.

Life is good.

I guess what I'm getting at is that the discomfort was temporary. The restless feeling I get when I can't get a jog in was weighing on me, but it sure felt good to stretch my muscles and my lungs today. It felt redemptive.

It's an important lesson to keep in mind. Earlier this week, I was given an interesting opportunity (albeit an opportunity that would have been almost impossible to take). I made some calls to check on other, more realistic opportunities and was disappointed to have a little bit of a setback. It hurt then and it hurts now, but here's the thing: almost every form of disappointment is temporary.

The person I am now is not the person I'll be in six months, six years, or sixty years (man, I'll be a cantankerous ol' ninety-two-year-old man; thank God for Jeanne's patience). Life is evolution, and this setback is temporary. I'm in the process of regrouping and taking another run at my goals, this time with a little clearer idea of where I need to go.

Time passes. Seasons change. People grow.

That's it...

Now, off to spray for wasps. Part of the joy of warm weather in Florida.

UPDATE: The wasps are mad. Oh, they're soooooo mad!


Narrative Impetus

In his essay "How to Write With Style," the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut dispenses the following advice:

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Although the essay trends more easily toward advice for nonfiction, this "genuine caring" lies at the center of all effective storytelling. And yes, it's important in the plot. Story is huge.

But it's even more integral to character.

Good fiction requires emotional investment. It demands empathy. It inspires loyalty.

But none of that happens without characters one can visualize in three dimensions. The vernacular in creative writing workshops focuses on round versus flat characters, and this is probably a useful way of talking about it. But to be more blunt:

Does anyone care?

If the answer is no, then the story's probably dead in the water. Jack Ketchum's Red succeeds because we see Av Ludlow in three dimensions. He's a sentimental man who has endured some terrible losses in his life and he wants justice. His simplicity, sincerity, morality and, for lack of a better term, his way so thoroughly endeared me to him that the "how" in his narrative predicament became less important than the "will."

I have to admit, I was worried that he wouldn't quite get his...well, I won't spoil it for you.

The same is true for Audrey Lucas in Sarah Langan's excellent novel Audrey's Door. Her tragic upbringing and attendant neuroses are so well rendered and so heartbreaking that we can't help but pull for her. Audrey's Door is a damned scary novel, but not as much for the bumps in the night as for the possibility that someone I've grown to care about as a reader might not be okay.

Characterization is king. I mean, if we don't care then what else is there?


Jack Ketchum's Red

I had one of those rare afternoons when I sat down with a novel and finished it in one sitting yesterday. Jack Ketchum's Red (2002) isn't a long novel, checking in at just over 200 pages, but it's a very successful one.
Ketchum is regarded as a pioneer of the splatterpunk movement and, to be sure, his novel Off Season is not for the faint of heart. But, like most of my favorite writers, that reputation is only one small part of a much greater skill set. Red, a textured novel of loss and revenge, is an exceptional example of capturing that most elusive of literary elements: sustenance of tone.

Effective literature (work that achieves a totality of impact across the fields of characterization, symbolism, theme, structure, style and tone) is provocative and complex.
Red certainly falls into that category. I mentioned the thumbnail synopsis to my wife last night (a man's dog is killed out of pure meanness by a group of local teenagers; revenge ensues) and we had a little chat about the "right" kind of revenge.
It's an interesting question--is seeking revenge ethical? Is it satisfactory? Does it grant catharsis?

In the case of Avery (Av) Ludlow, revenge is a window on the nature of his own loss and grief. Ludlow is a wonderful character--three dimensional and deep enough to help readers understand their own motivations if they were faced with a similar situation.

And in terms of tone--that nebulous "feel" that embodies emotion and place while advancing plot and character--this one is superb. Ketchum sketches life in small-town New England in vibrant strokes:

The dog had been a good dog. A damn good dog. His body was still warm.
He got up and closed and locked his tackle box and set his rig, picked them up along with the cooler and walked back to where the dog lay. He tied the arms of his shirt around the dog's neck against the seep of blood and picked him up and tucked him under one arm with the rig and cooler and tackle box all gripped in his other hand and then he started up the path.

The dog grew very heavy.

He had to stop twice to rest but he would not let go of the dog, only sat by the side of the path and put down the cooler and fishing gear and shifted the weight of the dog so that it rested in his lap across his knees, holding him in his arms until he was rested, smelling the familiar scent of his fur and the new smell of his blood.

The second time he stopped he cried at last for the loss of him and for their long fine past together and pounded with his fist at the hardscrabble earth that brought them here.

And then he went on.
Ketchum's prose is spare and precise; the fishing scene is perfectly rendered. He manages, on this smallish canvas, to fully explore the nature of loss and the various transitions of aging. But again, this one boils down to tone, which is one of sincerity.

Some stories meander, and that's okay on occasion, but as a reader I think remarkable books deserve that modifier because they deliver a sustained artistic vision.
Red is that kind of book...


Picking Bones From Ash

Marie Mutsuki Mockett's first novel covers a lot of territory. A literary work with speculative elements, Mockett's debut represents a keen investigation on the complexities of identity.

The narrative spans three generations of women; its settings vary--from Japan to Europe and America. By spanning the globe, the narrative engages cultural traditions and the uncertainty of "place" in foreign locales as a means of investigating connection.

And the connection that is most clear and vital to the story here is that bond between a mother and a daughter.

Mockett's assured prose--active, lively and fluid--makes this a quick read, but the lessons and insights on the complexities of what it means to be a part of something larger (a culture, a generation and, ultimately, a family) are always sharp and accessible.

A very strong debut and a recommended read. Mockett maintains a web journal here...


How the Break Winds Down

Unlike most educators, I work during the summer. I was hired at the college under this arrangement. At the time I was a little chagrined, not knowing how that scheduling might affect both my personal and professional life. In retrospect, it's been such a blessing that I've foregone the opportunity to switch to a traditional schedule in recent years.

The benefits are abundant. First and foremost, Northeast Florida is beautiful in the winter. From December to March, the humidity drops, the temperatures moderate and the days are mostly clear and bright. For a fellow who enjoys running in the woods and on the beach, playing golf and fishing, this is the best time of the year.

Secondly, it's nice to have the run of the college in the summer. My first assumption was that the college would be eerily quiet, but there are four of us working in the summer. We get a great selection of classrooms and facilities, and the place has a nice energy to it--which leads to productivity. Summer student populations are very laid-back, and I've grown to appreciate working indoors during the heat of the day.

I usually take time off from mid-December until the end of February, and then I teach an abbreviated eight-week schedule prior to a full load in the summer. This year, I boosted my load in the hopes that I could earn some extra money.

Now let's just hope I can get into graduate school to justify the savings.

But I just started five classes today, and it's great to be back at work. I'll be at the college on Monday and Tuesday, and then begins the five-day weekend.

In terms of my break, I:
  • ran about 220 miles;

  • played about twenty rounds of golf;

  • wrote five short stories;

  • wrote 20,000 words on the 2010 novel;

  • completed draft zero of the 2009 novel and sent it to Bernadette;

  • watched my daughter every morning of every day growing into a young person. I've seen it all (walking, eating, pooping, talking, laughing, hugging, crying, sleeping, asking questions, being human), and she is the central light in my life--the most amazing blessing that Jeanne and I could ever hope for.

On a related note to that final bullet point, I'm pretty much through wiping her nose. It's a universal truth that all children despise the parental nose wipe, and Lyla is no different. I thought about it today and, if it's not impacting her respiration, why should I wipe it away.

So she looks like Regan in The Exorcist when I drop her off at daycare. I've arrived at the conclusion today that the nose wiping is mostly a parental conceit.

See, my child is free of snot!

But the kids hate it and it's not bothering them and all it does is make the nose irritated, so why the incessant boogie wrangling?


Life's Enduring Mysteries

Who would win a zombie cage match between these two?
What does Kim Kardashian actually do? I saw she was going to be on with Leno this week, but what does she do? Is she an actor or a singer or a writer or...what?
Also, wht happened to Lost? I even tried like hell last year to follow it. I stayed up and watched and even knew a little about what was going on. Then this year, it's all super-dark underground sets and a mad sequence of all the dead characters from seasons past. I feel frustration--both with J.J. Abrams and with myself. We should both be better than this...


Shutter Island

After thinking about this film for a few days, I think its impact improves with time. My initial reaction was disappointment. I left the theater feeling like Martin Scorsese had attempted a serious film that touched on the nature of grief and madness, but with so many narrative arcs to tie together the piece had spun beyond his control.

On that point, my initial feelings persist. From WWII concentration camps to deadly apartment fires and all the attendant ghosts that populate those stories, it just felt disjointed.

But where I've changed my tune is on the film's attention to mise-en-scene and setting. The photograph in this post is a still taken from the opening scene. Federal Marshalls Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) share smokes and a few terse words on their journey to the secretive mental lockdown facility, Shutter Island. It struck me in the theater as a perfect opening scene.

Scorsese uses a green screen to create the background. It provided just the right touch--that sense of falsity juxtaposed with men having a serious talk--of gritty film noir. In some ways, I felt like I was watching the cab scene in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. He marries that shot to a realistic look at an approach to the titular island, and he had me hooked.

The island is immaculately and mysterious. The guards, orderlies, doctors and patients are all, in their way, just a little "off." And then there's Daniels. Jeanne told me later that she thinks DiCaprio often overacts; she said it always takes her a few moments to get used to him and then she sees his talent. I can buy that. He's pretty intense, but I like his work a lot. I think he's one of the best in the business.

In terms of the film's feel, it's all washed-out grays and muted whites. It looks like an island in the Puget Sound, and I dare you not to feel cold when Leo goes looking for Chuck on the rocks.

And in this one, Leo's at his flinching, surly, anxious best--all shoulder shrugs, paranoia and darting eyeballs. And there's that bandage on his forehead which, for all the rain and physical mishaps he endures, never seems to fall off. He's seeing things (the ashed wife scene is visually captivating) and his ability to deal with the island's medical personnel is, at best, barely effective.

So, just who is in control here?

No spoilers from me, but I will say that the film's third act is extremely hard to look at. It addresses postpartum depression in a way that will haunt audiences long after they leave the theater. Overall this film is a 'B', and I almost feel too generous in giving it that mark. Still, there's something going on here and I think I'll be interested to look at it again here in a few months when it finds its way to DVD.

They're running out the trailers on Clash of the Titans, and I can only hope they do it justice. Louis Laterrier did a solid job with 2008's Hulk film, so I'm hopeful...


The Mermaids of Ichnipopka Springs

My story "The Mermaids of Ichnipopka Springs" is now available in Leading Edge #58. I enjoyed working with the editors at LE, and I really appreciate the nice job they did in presenting my story. Hannah Hillam's illustrations are excellent and bring another dimension to the piece, I think.

If you get a chance to pick up a copy of the magazine, stop by and let me know what you think...

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...