Full Dark, No Stars

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...


Catching Up...

Life rips by with a little one around. It's a cliche because it's true. Less sleep and more housework and general management of parental duties (picking up and dropping off; nurturing of soul and spirit; trips to the doctor and, this year, the dentist; deep philosophical discussions on subjects such as trees and water) lead to less time for writing and reflection.

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.


Go Big Cats!

When the Jaguars are winning, this town is electric. When they are winning the way they have this year, the place is simply humming.

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!


9 Curzon Place and Wily Writers Speculative Fiction

My story "9 Curzon Place" has been reprinted and presented in audio format at Wily Writers Speculative Fiction. The story first appeared in print with Something Wicked early last year, and I'm happy to have it online now.

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.


Think of the Gators

Despite what that chap in the picture above might have you believe, it's cold right now in Florida. I awoke this morning to sub-freezing temperatures. After careful discussion with my twenty-month-old daughter, we came to a conclusion.

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?



When I was a kid, my pop used to take me hiking high into the Colorado Rockies. We did the Venerable Lakes Trail and the Comanche Lake Trail. We topped off Pikes Peak and did a bunch of tramping through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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...

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...