1.31.2011

Haunted Legends


I'm a huge fan of oral folklore and urban legends. I teach a short section on Florida's Cracker culture and some of the local oral folklore a couple of times every year here at FSCJ, and my students really seem to enjoy investigating the local legends. I've taken student groups to St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach for guided ghost tours. Northeast Florida is rich with haunted history, and it's been a neat learning experience to watch them unravelling some of that stuff through research and composition.
So it was with great anticipation that I got my copy of Haunted Legends, an anthology edited by Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow. The goal here was pretty simple: enlist some of the finest speculative authors in the field to interpret a "true" urban legend. It's this nebulous kernel of belief--that quasi-historical notion that fuels urban legends--that gives so many of these stories their charm. I found the afterwords, attached directly to the tales themselves, very illuminating and a nice touch in explication.
I read every story in the anthology and found them all enjoyable, though a few really did stand out as excellent. In no particular order, here were my favorites:
  • "The Folding Man" ~ Joe Lansdale. Pure horror fiction here. Lansdale plunges us ass-deep (there's a catalytic mooning in the first paragraphs that gets things going) into a tale of murderous "nuns" and their eponymous folding charge. A gory, chilling pulse pounder, this could only come from the imagination of Joe Lansdale.
  • "Down Atsion Road" ~ Jeff Ford's story is one of the best at really capturing the narrative aesthetic of an effective urban legend. Told in the first person, this story focuses on a community's visible eccentric--a local artist called Crackpop by the kids. Crackpop lives deep in the Pine Barrens, protected from New Jersey demons by a shallow moat and a well-kept secret. It's a legend within a legend, and the partially revealed story of Ginny Sanger provides the chills in the story's third act. I scoured the phone book, paid for an Internet trace, stopped and talked to old people when I'd see them out in their yards along Atsion Road. Nobody had ever heard of Ginny Sanger...Really interesting story.
  • "Oaks Park" ~ M.K. Hobson's story is one of the most emotionally riveting tales I've read in some time. This story is about personal grief and the dissolution of family. It's about renewal and cyclical sorrow. There is a watershed moment late in this story--a narrative set in Oaks Park, where I once attended a company picnic--that is really well written and very cathartic for the reader. Highly recommended.
  • "The Redfield Girls" ~ Laird Barron's take on The Lady of the Lake is keen. Like much of his fiction, there is a kinetic tension that just builds toward payoff. His fiction has a serious hum to it, and this one, a very sad piece, is entirely satisfying. The writing gets under the skin: The storm shook the house and lightning sizzled, lighting the bay windows so fiercely she shielded her eyes. Sleep was impossible and she remained curled in her chair, waiting for dawn. Around two o'clock in the morning, someone knocked on the door. Three loud raps. She almost had a heart attack from the spike of fear that shot through her heart.

There are many fine, emotionally resonant stories here. I think that's an important point to make in this discussion. Oral folklore is often dismissed as fluff, as inconsequential yarns designed merely to illicit a startled yelp around the campfire or at the sleepover. But these tales' cultural significance--as cautionary narratives and moralistic teaching tools--can't be overstated. They communicate important lessons on what it means to be human. Carolyn Turgeon's haunting "La Llorona" delves into the parental response to the loss of a child. It's a particularly hopeful interpretation of a chilling legend. John Mantooth's superb "Shoebox Train Wreck" is a journey of investigation, an examination of how guilt can scar us in perpetuity, remaking the core of personal identity until death becomes a welcome transition.

Overall, the anthology succeeds in its charge to reinvigorate a collection of world legends, making them bright and shiny for the next generation to investigate, disseminate, and enjoy...

1.28.2011

Loathsome, Dark and Deep

I really enjoyed Loathsome, Dark and Deep, from Belfire Press. Here's the review I put up on Amazon a short time ago:

Speculative fiction fans have been reading Aaron Polson's excellent short stories for years now. They've been rewarded with sharp insights into the human condition, vibrant prose, and some genuinely scary narratives.

So it should come as no surprise that those elements translate well into his most recent effort in the long form, Loathsome, Dark & Deep.

Polson teams with Belfire Press to produce an attractive book. The simplicity in design (I really like the understated chapter headings) suits the story well, as this is a gritty narrative of determination and perseverance--Polson's artful spin on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Narrated in the first-person, this is the story of Henry Barlow, a reluctant hero charged with the unenviable task of trekking deep into the Oregon forests to investigate a group of mad men. As an Oregon native, I really enjoyed my trip back to the damp climes of the old stomping grounds. Even while reading this in sunny Florida, I felt the cold in my bones.

Characterization is keen: I studied his face, carrying the hypnotic tranquility of the river to the minute criss-cross of scars. They looked almost like sutures, that Silas had been stitched together from several different men, that his face was patched together as a quilt of skin. For the first time, I felt uneasy around Silas--a cold, crawling sensation slid across the back of my neck.

The voice is well-suited to the post-Civil War setting. Barlow's descriptions and dialogue are concise and clear, and the central conflict of the task is harrowing. Let's just say that the ruined men don't provide the makings of pleasant dreams (...I wouldn't believe men could climb out of the river and try to bite my face off, neither. But that sure as hell happened this morning, didn't it?).

Dark literature with a dash of suspense, this one is well worth your time...

1.25.2011

Gathering the Thread

Last Friday, I read Joe Lansdale's Vanilla Ride in a single afternoon. It's both a testament to Mr. Lansdale's seat-of-your-ass, no-holds-barred, nutsack-full-of-testosterone prose and his excellent sense of pacing. The book, a pretty compelling thriller in which Hap and Leonard tussle with the Dixie Mafia, is short. Most of the fifty-plus chapters rip by at four or five pages apiece. It's a little different than a lot of Champion Joe's prose, as he often fleshes out larger chapters, but it's a very satisfying read.

Lansdale has a real knack for capturing scenes in full with his economic prose, and also for ending his chapters on appropriate narrative notes. Many of these dialogue-laden sentences put a conclusion on the scene, showing that you don't always have to point the way to the next plot development or search for the perfect cliffhanger. A lot of these chapters feel like flash stories, and that's a nice experience for the reader.

It's an important lesson, I think. This morning, I sifted through thirty-seven pages of the book I'm finishing up, trimming and excising and cutting and blow-torching. I'll try to do another thirty-seven tomorrow if I can. I'm trying to make these chapters round into shape, and its hard but satisfying. How does it all fit together?

My creative writing students from the fall had lots of questions about novels, even though we were writing short fiction. They wanted to know if there was much of a difference between writing in the long and the short forms. They wanted advice, but I didn't have a whole lot to give.

I told them to put their heads down and their hands on the keyboards and write--either way, they'll get there eventually.

But I think it also helps to think of the chapters like short stories. It helps with fashioning the overall narrative blueprint, as well as the day-to-day writing.

Maybe next time, I'll have them read some Champion Joe to give them a good example of what I mean...

1.18.2011

Beginnings and Endings...

Today feels like a bonafide renewal around these parts. The winter has been cold and blustery, with lots of days in the teens and twenties and even a few snow flurries back in late December. I recall reading Dream State (excellent book, by the way) back in 2005, a few weeks before we moved down here from Oregon; in the book, Diane Roberts wrote, "It can get bitterly cold in North Florida in the winter." I was incredulous, but boy was I off base. We've been cooooolllldddd!

Anyway, today it warmed up around here. I took a leisurely run on the trails in the sunlight, shorts and a tee-shirt, after taking Lyla to her first dental appointment ever. Those are the beginnings, friends: the peninsula is warming, and it won't be long before it's time to get out there and start working in the garden and the yard.

Lyla was wonderful in her appointment. She was surprisingly patient with everything and even seemed to enjoy the fluoride treatment. That kid...man, we got lucky.

On the other end of the spectrum, I'm about to leave for a retirement party for the inestimable Dean Charles Smires, my supervisor in the communications department for much of my time here at Florida State College. When Jeanne and I loaded the U-haul and did the reverse Oregon Trail back in '05, we both came East loaded with equal measure of trepidation and hope. I was pretty nervous about finding my place in an institution as large as ours.

But Dean Smires quickly set me mind at ease. His patient professionalism and sense of humor really make our department (twenty-one faculty, if I'm not mistaken) move smoothly. Dean Smires has always been fair and supportive, energetic and kind. He asks the types of incisive questions of the faculty he works with that help us grow as educators, and he is an old pro at mediating issues between faculty and students.

This retirement is actually probably a beginning for Dean Smires as well, or at least a return to his roots in the classroom. He's a very young retiree, and I expect we'll have the pleasure of his company as a colleague in the near future as he prepares to teach a little and travel a lot.

At any rate, our institution has excelled as a result of his expert stewardship and even temperament throughout the years. Congratulations, Dean Smires, on all of your accomplishments at the college...

1.17.2011

Odds and Ends...

Fresh on the heels of the Loughner insanity in Arizona comes a story about a (seemingly) unbalanced individual at Portland State, my alma mater, stabbing a fellow student amid a bout of paranoid confusion. While Andrew Richardson, who accrued thousands of dollars in medical bills, not to mention the unpleasantness of being STABBED, for heaven's sake, and the University are still determining how to deal with the aftermath of the attack, it's clear from the comments following the story that mental illness is still hugely misunderstood in our culture.

Richardson was worried enough about Heath Avery that he filed a complaint with the housing authority at PSU. The question now is whether or not PSU did enough to assess the situation and take the steps to keep students safe after the complaint.

Make no mistake, it's difficult to deter a determined assailant. But it looks like Richardson did his part in making his feelings known here; that's a large step forward in a culture in which keeping one's head down is the status quo.

"They want it to seem like (the campus) is a sanctuary in the city, and it's not," Richardson said. He's correct. From the screeching street preachers and the scores of homeless folks in the library and parking garages, PSU is the most urban of all of Oregon's universities. It's a great place--a lovely, charming place, to be sure--but that doesn't make it safe...


I spent the morning fulfilling one of my resolutions for the new year. I reformatted the text on the Kindle edition of An Autumn Harvest and lowered the price to $0.99. I also formatted the book for hardcopy purchase via Create Space and reformatted the Smashwords version as well. Everything should be in place and available for purchase/download prior to the weekend.

I'm enjoying Peter Straub's A Dark Matter quite a bit. At about the halfway point, I find the character depth and varied narrative viewpoints really well rendered. Straub, much like Stephen King, has an excellent way with conveying youthful exuberance in his characters.

And finally, I'd like to say thanks for all of the thoughtful e-mails after Oregon lost a fantastic national championship game last Monday evening. No, I wasn't despondent, but it did take Jeanne and I twenty-four hours to bounce back. We put a lot of emotion into that game and this season, and we couldn't be prouder of our home state of Oregon and its fine football team, the Ducks. Time to turn our attention to hoops now, and get ready for 2011 on the gridiron.

But thanks again for the e-mails. Loads of great pick-me-ups, which were much appreciated...

1.10.2011

A Fine Line

Before Saturday, I had planned to write a short essay in examination of Oregon's football team and its rise to national prominence. However, after Saturday's reprehensible shooting in Tucson, Arizona, I'm not too much into hashing that out. Instead, I'd like to simply state that my thoughts are with the families of those who lost loved ones.

I was taken aback by an interview that I looked at this morning on Today. Lynda Sorenson took a math class with Jared Lee Loughner. Back in June, she wrote
a couple of e-mails to a friend that now seem chillingly prescient. She wrote that Loughner was a classroom disruption, and that she sat near the door because he was the kind of student that might show up with a weapon and she wanted a chance at escape.

She expressed her concerns to the professor, who immediately informed his superiors. A few weeks later, Loughner was removed from the classroom.

A
similar situation took place years ago, when Nikki Giovanni sought to have Sung-Hui Cho removed from a creative writing class. Giovanni told NPR at the time:

"I requested that he be be taken from my class because of his behavior. I don't know what we could have done differently. I've taught students who were clearly psychotic ... You can't kick people out of school because they're different, and you can't kick them out because they would be weird."

Giovanni's correct, but there are obviously limits to the amount of bizarre behavior an instructor needs to tolerate. I've worked at universities and community colleges in Oregon and Florida continuously since 2002. I've worked with thousands of students in that time, and I've encountered many who had emotional or behavioral issues--some pretty severe, in this layman's estimation.

Only three times did I need to involve security in the conversation. I've asked students to leave class for being disrespectful, rude, and saying outright bigoted things to myself and to other students. In my first year at Mt. Hood Community College, I had a student that came to every class with large headphones covering her ears. Unfortunately, the adapter hung loosely at her side (I've been told by some in the mental health field that's a coping mechanism for folks suffering from mental illness), not plugged into any i-pod or radio. I've had to break up a fistfight between two men over their discord on abortion.

I had a student follow one of his classmates home, and that constituted a serious intervention involving not only campus security, but the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. I mention all of this just to show how common it is in our culture to encounter folks like Jared Loughner. The
CDC lists the following on its website:

•Percent of noninstitutionalized adults with serious psychological distress in the past 30 days: 3.2%


I'll be honest with you: it's a challenge sometimes to maintain control when a student presents a persistent behavioral problem. I try to create an open, inviting atmosphere for discussion of current events. We write about such topics as immigration policy, stem cell research, identity theory and sexuality--stuff that is both emotionally charged and topical. I love it, and I prefer using the challenging topics to the canned arguments in the textbook. It's the best way to contextualize the students' present reality, and to give their writing purpose.

But man, sometimes it's a can of worms that is probably better left alone.

After the shootings at Virgina Tech, our college installed two-way communicators between all classrooms and campus security. It's a sad reminder, every day, of the environment we live in. Those communicators offer little hope for me that things will be okay if an imbalanced student comes to class with bad intentions.

So what can be done? I think vigilance is important. I think instructors, administrators, security and students need to understand each other better. Just because someone pays tuition does not mean that I am mandated to work with him or her. That's the reality of the situation--one I've made abundantly clear to a pair of students at the Deerwood Center in the last eighteen months. Each of those students' behavior improved and we finished the course on decent terms. But I did, at one point last summer, forward all student correspondence to security after the level of threatening rhetoric made me uncomfortable.

More than anything, however, the atmosphere in higher education needs to undergo a paradigm shift to focus more closely on hiring mental health experts to work side by side with others in the counseling areas. There's this unspoken belief that, because it's "higher education," students should understand how to "behave." The belief extends to the notion that classrooms are safe and college campuses are largely populated by mature students. This is just simply not true.

By improving upon mental health interventions and treatment, I think you make everyone safer. Perhaps, if Sorenson's instructor had been able to convince Loughner to visit Pima Community College's mental health services, an intervention might have changed things before he brought a gun to a political discussion at a local grocery store. Perhaps, if Loughner's mental state had been accurately assessed, he wouldn't have been able to purchase the gun at Sportsmen's Warehouse in the first place.

As we discuss and debate some of the political ramifications that this horrible event have revealed, let's not lose focus on the role that mental illness continues to take in American culture...

1.08.2011

Films...

When I was a senior at Linfield, I managed Videoland. Yes, Videoland. It was awesome. I ran the schedule and deposited the money at the end of the night, and I talked about movies with customers and tried to keep from ripping my hair out over our battles concerning late fees.

God, we are a country of extraordinary excuses.

That's time I can't get back, friends.


We had a Blockbuster on the other side of town, and we hated them (the funny thing was, we were also a chain, whose headquarters were, supposedly, in the Midwest). Our Videoland, at least, was the proverbial anti-corporate joint. I hired a bunch of soccer players from Linfield and a bunch of Mac High kids; we had loads of fun.

Years after I left Mac, Jeanne and I returned for some rolled tacos at Muchas Gracias. I was sad to see that Blockbuster had since taken over the space. No more Videoland mojo.

Now, I'm actually sad that Blockbuster is going under. Seriously, it pains me to think of a world without a physical video store, as much as my rational mind tells me it's the second-most irrational thing that should exist (the first is a book by Snooki).

But I love movies. I really love going to the theater, and I plan on making a movie or two in the near future (more on that as events warrant). We watch a few DVDs each week, and we subscribe to Blockbuster (love the in-house swaps).

But our BB on Monument is closing, so we have to head over to University. Not terrible, but also not cool. I knew where all the movies were in the one on Monument.

At any rate, we looked at a couple of fine rentals recently.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) is okay. The critics graded it out as a B-, and that's not unkind. I like it as a 'B' overall. Michael Douglas is very good. He does a fantastic job, and it's worth it to watch him alone. LeBeouf is forgettable as the film's conscience, and the plot is a little skimpy. Oliver Stone does cool stuff with movies. I like his work. He has fun, and you can never miss his signatures.


But the original film had so much more grit and energy. This one, still, carries on...but it lacks the teeth of the original (a film I often show as a solid 1980s offering, as an occasional alternative to Do the Right Thing or Full Metal Jacket). I would have liked a more equivocal skewering of the financial meltdown of 2008 (yes, a contemporary of mine is still floating on the bonus he won when the bubble popped--he loves it). It seems like a hurried film in the first third; couple that with a forced family-reunification theme and it falls a little short.

Still, Stone returns to the split screens (I'm glad he didn't go eight deep, as that would have been old hat) and the occasional flirtations with whimsy (the bubbles).

I liked it more than I thought I would. It's a fine film. Not a great sequel, but certainly a worthy continuation of the Gordon Gekko mythos...

The American (2010) was also pretty good (B).

The film is quiet and plodding. It has tiny bursts of energy and a stylish overall feel. There is some passion and some intrigue. The story's central idea is telegraphed. The ending, as abrupt as it is, is okay. I thought it appropriate.

George Clooney is a suave killer with a brutal quotient of blood on his hands. His next assignment is a tough one--that final kill (my wife called it from two miles away)...

We see where it's going, and yet it's still an enjoyable film. The scenery is pretty. The dialogue is sharp. The conflict is compelling.

Short bursts of action keep the pace pleasantly varied. Solid--not great--but worth the time to take a look at, The American is, ultimately, kind of a sad film.

1.04.2011

Odds and Ends...

We bought a Toyota Prius about ten days ago and promptly backed it into the garage door with the hatchback up. Now that little sucker is getting a new spoiler and Jeanne has my truck this week for work. No worries, though, as I'm starting my off-time at the college. I've had a couple of leisurely mornings with Lyla this week before putting her into the jogging stroller and running her down to her daycare before coming back to work on a pair of writing projects. Both stories are set here in Northeast Florida, and both seem to be unravelling quickly and well.

I edited sixty-four pages of the book I largely wrote in the last six months of 2010 yesterday. It's solid, and I'm excited for where it might go when it's finished later in the year.

True Grit (2010) is a pretty fantastic film (B+). The writing, as is the hallmark of much of the Coen Brothers' typically excellent work, shines here. The characters eschew contractions, using English the way it was originally intended. Peppered with period-appropriate phrases (the scenes with Mattie trading with the pony broker are priceless), this story is just delightful to listen to.

Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld should get an Academy Award nomination for her turn as Mattie Ross. It's beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, and the pacing is excellent. I love the establishing shot of the town, just prior to the public hanging. They spared no expense on set design.

My only problem with the story is its third act. Mattie's predicament, when coupled with the poorly rendered CGI vipers, just doesn't feel realistic given the more pragmatic hurtles she and Cogburn clear over the first two thirds of the story.

Still, I highly recommend the film. It deserves all the critical praise it's been earning.

And finally, here is a chilling tale of life beyond the grave. Angel Leigh McCoy's "Oral Tradition" is an engaging yarn--a horror story both gruesome and touching in its way. The title is appropriate, as the story has a handed-down, word-of-mouth authenticity that meshes well with the plot. It's about reconciling family history and expunging the atrocities of the past. Oh, and that little bit of inheritance in the final act? Sheesh...

Very good piece, and nicely performed by Ben Phillips (he does a nice Southern accent)...

1.03.2011

Ultimate Anthology: "Voluntary Committal"

Joe Hill is one of the best new voices out there right now in dark fiction. His novels have been strong, but his short fiction is almost pitch perfect. Twentieth Century Ghosts is one of those collections that begs to be read yearly, if for no other reason than to inspire.

I think the fourth tale I'll collect for the ultimate anthology is his story "Voluntary Committal." This is a perfect specimen of the American weird tale. The postulate is compelling, the solution is bone-chilling, the relationship between Morris and our narrator is--well, it's a well-rendered sibling relationship. Not quite Howard and Bow-Wow Fornoy, but it'll do. Here's what I wrote in my Amazon review many moons ago:

"Voluntary Committal" goes into my all-time anthology. It's a novella about assuaging the mistakes of our youth. Consider all the things you wish you could take away: all the wrongs you've done others, all the hurt you've instilled upon those who've trusted you, all the chances you passed that you wished you'd taken. Think about all of those things and then ask yourself:

What would you change if you could go back?

For our narrator Nolan, the answer to that question rests in a sealed manila envelope in the lower right drawer of his office desk.


And there you have it: officially put into my all-time anthology. I'm paying professional rates in compliments in exchange for first world wishful-thinking rights.

Here's the Anthology to Date:

"Voluntary Committal" ~ Joe Hill

"The Pear Shaped Man" ~ George R.R. Martin
"The Small Assassin" ~ Ray Bradbury
"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" ~ Peter S. Beagle

1.02.2011

Harmony

Satoshi Ito (Project Itoh) did what most of us writers want to do: he wrote a story that resonates and will exist within the science fiction canon. Harmony is a complex novel--a dystopic analysis of the nanny state in which life is so sacred that it's almost cheap.

The premise is well rendered: most of the world subscribes to a mental adaptation system controlled by the Admedistration. Everything, from nutrition to exercise to emotion and excitement, is regulated and watched by a network of agencies whose goal is to ensure harmony (read: homogeneity).

Itoh's tale surely shines in the first third. Tuan is a protagonist one can relate to. She's smart but flawed; sentimental but cold. The beauty of the story is that we are also drawn to our antagonist, Miach, whose recollections of previous cultures, and her love of history, are simply fantastic. These sections make the narrative work.

WatchMe is the software. Tuan and Miach are the unwilling pawns in its wake. This is a story that hits home on a lot of levels. What would life be like without subversion? How would it be if we were all aware of our situations, 100% of the time?

Ito passed away before he could appreciate the results of this novel. I think this is the rock, thrown into the pond, that leaves waves crashing on the shore. If you are into science fiction, you owe it yourself to read this book.

1.01.2011

Happy New Year!

2010 concluded in the finest fashion, with a fantastic week-long visit from my parents. Lyla had a wonderful time sharing her days with Ama and Hoogie. We visited the zoo, the museum of science and history, St. Augustine, and Fort Caroline. We ate some great meals and watched some good movies and enjoyed each other's company immensely. There's nothing like having family close, and we definitely recharged our batteries on that front.

In terms of the year, I spent a lot more time focused on my work and my family than I did my writing. Lyla is doing really well, and if we are fortunate to expand our family in 2011, we'll be putting even more focus on the Powell flock.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

It means I'll have to further focus my writing goals and shift my process a little. I'll be writing a little more late at night, and at odd hours, in order to accomplish my modest goals this year: polish the novel I fleshed out in 2010 and compose twelve strong short stories.

I have four confirmed tales coming out in 2011 so far, and I just received the great news an hour ago that a story that made the short list was picked up for an anthology that I was really hopeful of appearing in. It's a sequel to a well-received anthology, and it's very gratifying to get the good news.

2011 could be a year of great change in our family. I'm hopeful that my professional opportunities at Florida State College will continue to blossom, and it's my goal to at least undertake a few courses in continuing education. There have been positive signs of life in Jacksonville's economy, which gives me a little hope for the investments we've made, not the least of which is our home.

I'm going to run more miles this year and catch more fish. I'm going to spend more time outside and even less on the computer. I'm going to read more books and watch more good movies. I'm going to cook some dishes I've never had before and I'm going to finally bake a decent loaf of bread at home.

This past decade has been a tough one on many fronts. Lots of suspicion, anger, dread, sadness, loss and sorrow in the global community. Struggle is a part of life, and we can't enjoy the sweet without the bitter, but it just seems that the last ten years have particularly challenging.

Here's to a fresh start at not only a new year, but a new era in our world--one of peace and harmony and cooperation. One of respect and camaraderie and progress.

I wish you all the best in the pursuit of any goals you might have set for yourselves. Be kind to each other, and take the time to appreciate the moment. Those are two things I'm certainly going to spend more time on.

Thanks, as always, for dropping by from time to time...

Uncovering Original Ideas

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope....