Mr. Mercedes: A Review

I can't imagine that it took Stephen King long to write Mr. Mercedes. Still a gifted and prolific writer, King produces two or three book-length projects each year, in addition to his myriad short stories, columns, and essays. Within that bunch there is usually a true gem or three, but this one is, alas, merely average.

King trots out the old chestnut of the retired cop and his daily face-off with the prospect of eating his old man's service revolver. There's a psycho whose sexist and racist tendencies just seem tired and distracting here. Yes, we understand that he doesn't like women (even his mother, who repulses him even as she relieves him of certain tensions...ick) and anyone that is different than him. By the way, he's a generically handsome young white man who is good with technology and, for some reason, hates the world.

It's like King ordered Brady Hartsfield straight out of the literary characterization catalog (probably filed under 'P' for Patterson). This is a major failing in the book, as King could have offered a glimpse into the nature of evil by going against the grain here and creating a character outside of the homogeneous tradition of sociopathic behavior. But with nothing new to offer, this just reads like another dime-store serial-killer paperback. 

Hodges is similarly one-dimensional. Overweight. Obsessed. Unorthodox. Tough. He's a rhino whose subtle move is to hit perps with a sock filled with ball bearings. Sheesh...

The strangest element of the story is the plot point concerning Olivia's suicide. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy that a person whose Mercedes sedan was stolen to execute such a nefarious task would feel such enormous guilt that she would actually commit suicide.

Tragic and horrifying that someone might take a car for that purpose? Oh, certainly. I wouldn't keep the damned car, as she did--that's for sure. 

But she was the victim of a crime as well. Whatever folks do with her car (and the explanation of leaving the car unlocked and having that leaked to the papers--well, it just strains credulity) after they steal it is on them. She didn't drive that car into the crowd and, as it turns out, she never left the car unlocked in the first place. Just absurd... 

Mr. Mercedes is not without its charms, of course. Much of it is written in the present tense, a device King has proven exceedingly adept at executing. That's no small trick. And I really like Holly's character development, and Janelle's positive spirit. The pathos created in the opening passage, while folks assemble for a job fair in the early hours of the morning, is vintage Stephen King. Too bad the sincerity and heart captured in those opening pages wasn't sustainable throughout the remainder of the novel.

About every fifth King effort is average. This is that fifth book (put it out there with Lisey's Story and From a Buick 8 and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), and that's okay. 

King is still hitting homers at a rate that makes him a first-ballot HOFer...


On Professional Writing and Publishing...

I've written about this subject in the past, so my thoughts are on the record. I think Jane Friedman has some intelligent and practical advice in this fine post. Well worth the read if you are thinking of working in the publishing field. There is, most certainly, a living to be made there. The catch is, these aren't the same jobs that existed even five years ago. Developing a portfolio, establishing a platform, and honing a wide variety of communication skills is paramount in this rapidly shifting industry...


The Babadook (2014)

I watched Jennifer Kent's mind-blowing The Babadook (2014) last night. What a stunning narrative achievement. I awoke today with an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach and an intense urge to hold my daughter and assure her that her world is safe. 

This is a creature feature, to be sure, but it's also an intense examination of the nature of grief and loss, and the tenuous connections of family. Essie Davis delivers the performance of the year. Alternating between vulnerability and sheer, raw anger and purple hatred, I'm stunned by how versatile and talented this actor is. She plays exhausted more convincingly than I've seen in any film since Bale delivered the previous gold standard in The Machinist, and her ability to emote in the third act just pulled chill after chill out of me.

Those shrieks...my goodness!

This one certainly builds a sustained tension. It's a throwback to films like Rosemary's Baby, with its extended, dreamlike television montages and careful build toward the big revelations. Without spoiling the film, I'll just say that the monster's appearance itself is conservative and, while scary, Mister Babadook is not nearly as harrowing as the family dynamics playing out between mother and son.

The film works against categorization, and the hints are as meticulously placed as in any horror film since The Sixth Sense. Sure, it satisfies Chris Booker's "overcoming the monster" plot pattern, but it's also a keen examination of Jung's shadow archetype. In that sense, it really plumbs the depths of the monsters inside all of us--of those repressed (suppressed) urges and instincts that gather in the trenches of the human psyche.

One of Kent's finest accomplishments here is the juxtaposition of power between mother and son. There is a moment, right around the thirty-minute mark, when we see Sam's characterization shift.

"He always speaks plainly," their neighbor, Grace Roach says twice. And indeed, despite his portrayal as a child out of control, it's Sam that keenly notices the changes in their barren, joyless home life. 

"I love you, Mom," he says in one telling scene.

"Me too," she replies, which might say more about what she's doing with that basement than any other aspect of the film.

Noah Wiseman was superb in his portrayal of Sam. The scene in the back of the station wagon will make your heart leap up into your throat. Seeing your child in that state...sheesh! 

Both of my sisters suffered from frequent seizures in our childhood. I've never forgotten that sense of utter and total loss of control.

This is a film I will probably watch again this evening, hopefully with my wife. I can't recommend it enough, both as the scariest film that I've seen since The Exorcist III, and as the best film of 2014. 


Monday Matinee: "Seasons of Belief"

Now that we've turned the corner into December, I feel in the clear on sharing this little beauty. The holidays aren't complete without a screening or two of "Seasons of Belief," a wicked little holiday yarn penned by Michael Bishop and depicted well on the underrated Tales from the Darkside

We still don't speak The Grither's name six times around here. Why tempt fate, because who really wants to be Grithered on Christmas Eve?


What They Saw at Plymouth

Thanksgiving dinner at the Baptist Towers Rest Home had always been difficult, but things had become an absolute circus since Anthony Adair moved into 14B.

The media requests usually began trickling in around Halloween. The locals still attempted to arrange an interview, hoping their persistence would eventually thaw the wall of stubborn silence the old man had erected. Time, The New Yorker and USA Today had thrown in the towel after a few years of being stonewalled by the world’s most famous historical tourist, but ambitious journalists still camped in the lobby on turkey day, hoping for at least a few photographs for their efforts.
And so it was with great anticipation that Jennie Granger flitted about the dining hall, refilling empty punch glasses and hustling back to the kitchen for replacement cutlery as forks and knives found their inevitable homes on the floor. Granger had built a cautious rapport with Adair; she hoped that almost a year of tending to his needs would culminate in what had proved to be humanity’s most elusive interview.
“Shoot,” she muttered as she distributed squares of pumpkin pie from a serving cart. “I can’t believe I’m doing this...”
“Doing what, dear?” Mrs. Salegovic said, her eyes magnified behind what seemed like an inch of bifocal. She, like many of the older guard, had turned down eye surgery on numerous occasions, opting instead for a natural aging experience. It was cheaper, to be sure, and there was more dignity in it, at least in the minds of the older generations.
“Oh, nothing,” Granger replied, blushing. “You have excellent hearing, Mrs. S.”
Salegovic winked, the gesture saying it all. You better believe I hear well, young lady. I hear everything.
Granger had serious misgivings about the plan, but she was going to go through with it.
Drugging Anthony Adair was their best option. It was as simple as that.
“Look, half of the clients are on the stuff already,” Caldwell Wilson, her professor at the university, had said. They’d been in bed together, rehashing the plan one final time. “And we’re not talking sodium pentathol here, Jennie. Just a single crushed Questar, dropped into his evening tea. Just a little nudge in the direction of honesty. You were born to tell this story, babe. Born to do it, but you need to see the tape...”
The memory was interrupted by Jim Flagler’s sonorous Southern drawl. The director’s beaming face appeared on the digital wall at the front of the dining hall.
“Thank you, one and all, for another fantastic Thanksgiving holiday!” There was a smattering of applause; someone in the back of the room called the director a turkey, and there were a few jags of caustic laughter. “It’s great to see you all in such high spirits. Thanksgiving truly is my favorite time of the year. It’s an essential reminder of all that’s important in life—friendship, community, and sharing.”
Flagler carried on with his Hallmark spiel for a few more minutes, then turned his eyes toward Anthony Adair. “As has become our custom since Mr. Adair joined us here at Baptist Towers, I’ll now ask the kind gentleman if he’d care to share his experience of the very first Thanksgiving! If you’re willing, Mr. Adair, we’d be honored to hear your tale.”
The room went silent. Over one hundred pair of eyes drilled down on the old man in the wheelchair.
“Mr. Adair?”
Anthony Adair stared at the digital wall for a long moment, then slowly folded his arms across his chest.
“Very well,” Flagler said. He gave the room a gentle smile. “My momma always told me that it never hurts to ask. I want to sincerely thank all of you, once again...”
His words faded into white noise as Jenny Granger studied Adair. Just at that moment, his head swiveled and he met her gaze. Granger gasped sharply as a smile slowly formed on his face.
When he turned his attention back to the square of pumpkin pie before him she exhaled, unaware that she’d been holding her breath.
“Miss! Miss! May I have some more dessert?” Elmer Dunwoody called.
“Of course,” Granger replied, putting Adair’s knowing smile out of her mind as she finished up with the dinner service.
 “Have you ever kept a secret, Ms. Granger?” Adair said. “Something...really juicy?”
They were back in 14B, the nicest suite in the complex. There was a large bedroom, a kitchenette, a sitting room, and even a spacious study. They were in the study when Adair posed his question. He remained in his wheelchair, his spindly legs covered with a quilt. Granger had helped him shrug out of his dress shirt and slacks and into pajamas. A fire sizzled and popped in the hearth, casting the dim room in shadows that danced across the spines of hundreds of books. “Have you ever been saddled with information that you knew might upset an important balance? Knowledge that would fundamentally change an entire way of life?”
Granger nodded sincerely. “Probably not to the extent that you have, Mr. Adair, but I have kept a secret. My sister confided something…something monumental in me years ago, and I haven’t told another soul about what happened to her. I never will.”
Her pulse surged. She sensed that she was on the edge of something important, and her hand covered the tiny bulge of the pill in her smock. Perhaps there would be no use for it after all.
Adair caught the furtive gesture, and his blue eyes twinkled as a smile lit his face. “No need for that, Ms. Granger. No need. I think, if you’re willing to hear me out, then I’m finally ready to tell my story.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Adair? I just...”
“Come now,” he chuckled. “I’m not without resources. I know you’ve been studying journalism at the university. I actually applaud you for your dedication. And you seem very pleasant. It’s just,” he frowned and considered the gnarled hands folded in his lap, “I’m not sure that you’re strong enough to look at the tape. To tell the whole story.”
Granger sighed. “Do you mind if I join you—near the fire here?”
“Of course not,” Adair replied, smiling warmly. “Please—make yourself comfortable. But before you do, fetch me that volume there.” He pointed to a large book on the desktop in the corner.
Granger retrieved it and slid a high-backed chair into position across from the old man. “May I record this?”
Adair nodded, and Granger activated the device embedded within her contact lenses. She studied the book. The cover depicted the man—confident, smiling, much younger—now sitting opposite her. The book had become an almost universally required text in high school history classes over the last three decades.
She handed it over to Adair, and he looked at it for a long moment. Finally, he turned his gaze on the young woman. “So tell me, Ms. Granger. Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Are you strong enough to bear witness to what I saw on that very first Thanksgiving?”
“I am,” she replied, betrayed just a little by the warble in her voice. She felt a rush of adrenaline, then a pang of anxiety.
Adair nodded his head slowly. “Very well. In that case let’s start at the beginning.”
He opened the text.
“What do you know about Albert Quindlen?”
Granger smiled. “You mean the most famous person in all of human history?”
Adair nodded.
“Um, okay,” Granger said. “He created the Quantum Discovery Module in 2019. He was an amateur scientist and frustrated inventor, and then he stumbled upon the existence of parallel time channels. The first-generation QDM was the natural technological progression from that discovery. I know that he was the first historian to travel back in time—that he recorded the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius from a safe vantage point just outside of Naples. That was back in 2023, and it was the first known instance of time travel, although there are rumors that Quindlen had back-trekked a number of times prior to that while he was building his prototype.”
“Very good. And what else?”
“Well, he created Quindlen Technologies in 2025. In 2030, he opened the first Living History Travel Station out at the old Air Force Base—what used to be called Cecil Field. And then after that, his story and yours are pretty much intertwined.”
Adair nodded in concession. “Very good, Ms. Granger. A solid thumbnail synopsis. Albert Quindlen, like another famous Albert before him, was a very bright light in an otherwise dim world. He was an honorable and brilliant man who created something that changed the way we live. Did you know that he designed the first QDM in the machine shop of a little old swimming pool supply store?”
Granger nodded that she hadn’t and Adair chuckled at the memory.
“’Al’s Discount Pool Supply,’” he mused. “His shop was located in the second unit of a depressing old strip mall, located almost at the northern end of St. Johns Bluff Road. Sandwiched between a nail salon and place called Canine Creations. They made gourmet dog treats—even doggy ice cream, if you can believe that! Albert once told me that he knew it was time to quit for the day when the woman next door would bake those treats and his stomach set to growling.
“At any rate, Albert Quindlen had intended that his invention to be put to noble purposes. He hoped to provide a first-person account of humanity’s benevolence and strength. Do you recall what happened after Bindal Al Mirashi went back and recorded Muhammad’s first revelation? Back in 2034?”
Granger nodded. “Radical Islamic terrorism, as we had come to know it, ceased to exist. Al Mirashi’s observations created the truest interpretation of Islam that the world had ever known. Things changed forever.”
“And those were the beautiful assurances, you see. Those were the affirmations that were necessary for mankind to move forward as a global community. And for many years, the most astonishing facet of the technology was just how useless it truly was. Because history had been, by and large, phenomenally accurate.
“Sure, there are the infamous misses. Those are bound to happen, of course. Who would have ever guessed that George Washington had such nefarious…appetites? Who could predict that Elvis Presley had been murdered by his own manager? And of course, I don’t need to get into the JFK tapes. That remains my most controversial trek—well, aside from the tape that I’ll show you later tonight. But, what I mean to say is that instances like those were few and far between.
“The QDM brought the past to life, and for many years, I was its most prominent advocate.”
Granger nodded and watched as Adair thumbed through the book until he arrived at the first chapter. He passed it to the young woman.
“Read this, please.”
Granger cleared her throat. “To know America—the term often used synonymously with the country now called the United States of America—is to know a nation built upon a foundation of bloodshed and conquest.” She looked up from the page, confused, and then pressed on. “That foundation begins, for practical purposes, with Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the country’s oldest continuous settlement of European descent: St. Augustine, Florida. The first governor of Florida, Menendez and his company of soldiers quickly dispatched the peninsula’s native inhabitants, the Timucua, and their leader Seloy. Thus began a long history of usurpations, land acquisitions and military campaigns by the peoples of France, Spain, England and America against populations indigenous to the continent…”
She read through the end of the first section of the first chapter before closing the book and staring at Adair. “What is this? It’s nothing like the text I remember reading back in school.”
“It’s my final edition. The truest draft, my dear. Go ahead—scan the tape.”
Granger cracked the book open and touched the pads of the index and middle finger on her right hand to the sensors at the bottom of the page. In the telefields of her contact lenses, she saw familiar images of the Spanish and the Timucua hunting together. There were images of the natives trading with their foreign visitors and building homes and forts together—all neatly edited and spliced together. The overall effect was to give a primary account of daily life in the 1560s.
“I’ve seen all of this, Mr. Adair. We had quizzes on every one of your lessons. You should be very proud to have…”
“You haven’t seen this version. In this version, I’ve included everything that I witnessed. Even the sections that were…edited for sensitive audiences.”
Granger swallowed, nodded and returned her fingers to the sensors. The tape showed the Spanish and the Timucua fishing together. She knew the waters were nearby, and she felt excitement and pride that such an important period in her country’s history had unfolded in her own back yard.
There was a momentary blip in the tape, as if another portion of footage had been affixed to the original she recalled from high school, and that’s when she saw the massacre. A group of Timucua natives were hunting in a marshy slough. She counted nine of them, all males. One, recognizable by his dress and the way he wore his long hair, was Seloy. They crept through the saturated lowlands, bows at the ready; two more carried nets as they scanned the pools for fish.
 Granger was absorbed by the images. The methodical manner of the hunting party increased the tension of the scene playing out before her. She heard, far in the distance, the occasional cry of a whippoorwill. Other than that, Adair’s footage was almost preternaturally silent.
She flinched when the first Timucua fell to the ground. A shaft of arrow jutted from his back, and he lie perfectly still—face down in the muck.
She withdrew her fingers and locked eyes with Adair.
“It was all very sudden,” he said quietly. “Thankfully, by the time that I captured this footage, Quindlen’s people had perfected the Whisper Suits. I can’t imagine what might have happened if I’d been discovered.”
She touched her fingers to the sensors and watched in mounting horror as a group of Spanish horseman overtook the hunting party. With knives and clubs and arrows, they made short work of the Timucua, piling their bodies on a spit of dry land before setting covering them with driftwood and Spanish moss. A captain set fire to the remains and the Spaniards celebrated their ambush.
The only thing they did not burn was the Timucua chief’s head, whose unblinking visage was instead tucked into a saddlebag by an infamous Spaniard with streaks of blood in his beard.
“We were always told that they coexisted,” she whispered when the tape was finished. “We were told that the Spanish and the Timucua relied on each other for survival.”
Adair flashed a mirthless smile—a grim line that spoke to an underlying pessimism that was as strong and reliable as the St. Johns River. “Go ahead. Finish the chapter. I think I’ll pour myself a brandy. Would you care for one?”
Granger refused; she paged forward in the text, engrossing herself in a history the world had never known.
It was ten minutes before 11:00 p.m. when Granger had finished the first chapter. She closed the book with a sigh, turning her attention to her host, who had been snoring in his wheelchair for more than an hour.
“Mr. Adair,” she whispered. She put her hand on his forearm, amazed at how brittle the man was. It was like touching a chicken bone wrapped in a dishcloth. “Let’s get you into bed.”
She began to wheel him toward the bedroom, and he came awake with a start. “No! Not yet, Ms. Granger. There is still time to finish this before the conclusion of our beloved holiday. Please—fetch me that text.” He pointed to a bookshelf on the far wall. Granger went to it.
“Which one?”
“Third row from the bottom. To your right just a bit. Just a bit more. There! Try that one!”
Granger pulled a slender volume from the shelf.
“Please, Ms. Granger—build up the fire a little, would you?”
She added another Duralog, smiling at how sentimental the old ones could be, then handed him the text.
“I can’t...I can’t believe what I just saw, Mr. Adair. Roanoke. Jamestown. Popham. The things they did to each other!”
Adair offered a grim nod. “Such is the way of conquest. This is the one that they all want to see. This is the one that they’ve hounded me for since I returned.” A wistful quality appeared in his eyes and he smiled. “Would you like to hear something amazing?”
Granger nodded.
“Two months before he died, Albert Quindlen told me that he’d found a way to replicate the coding for the time channels. Quindlen thought, within a matter of years, technology would make it possible to visit these places more than just that single time.”
“But they never discovered how?”
“They never did,” Adair replied with a rueful shake of the head. “That’s one secret—although I’m sure there are many, many more—that Albert took with him to the grave. The government has tried to go back—to observe him at work in his laboratory—but they haven’t learned anything useful. Now they’re scared as hell to use the time channels; they’re worried they’ll exhaust the Quindlen footage without having anything useful to show for it.
“At any rate, you hold in your hands a chapter called ‘Plymouth.’ Forgive me if I nod off. A man my age must take his sleep wherever he can get it. Please, Ms. Granger—wake me when you’ve finished.”
He smacked his lips a few times and closed his eyes, his head shrinking down on his shoulders like a turtle’s ducking into its shell.
Granger opened the text. The notes had been recorded on a typewriter—not a word processor or a digipad, but an honest-to-goodness typewriter. There were hand-written scrawls in the margins.
She started to read—the words merging together in the firelight to create a narrative of struggle and misery, of determination and achievement. She read for over an hour and, in the first minutes of the day after Thanksgiving, in the year 2063, she touched her fingers to the sensors and became one of two living souls to see the only eye-witness account of the very first Thanksgiving.
 “Ms. Granger,” Adair whispered to the distraught girl. He reached out to touch her arm. “Ms. Granger!
She flinched at the feathery contact, squirming away from him in her seat. “How did you? How could you..?” she said, tears streaming from her eyes.
Adair merely nodded. “Perhaps I could have better prepared you for that footage. Perhaps I should have...”
Granger stood. “You! You just sat there and watched!”
“But I did not—I could not—intervene, Jennie! You must understand that! I merely recorded what happened. I could not intervene—you know that! And now—now you’ve seen it! You must understand why I’ve kept this to myself all these long years. Why, can you imagine if that footage had been leaked to the American people? Can you imagine if..?”
Granger tossed the book onto the old man’s lap, as if it might burn her. “It’s horrible, Mr. Adair! It’s revolting! You should have destroyed the tape years ago!”
“Well, then, do it now, girl! There,” he pointed, “throw it in the fire!” With shaking hands, he extended the book to her.
Granger swiped a tear from her cheek, snatched the text, stomped over to the fire and tossed it into the flames. They watched in silence as the edges caught and began to curl in the heat. When the book was nothing but collapsed ash, Granger made her way to the doorway.
“Did you get what you needed?” Adair called to her. She paused, her hand on the doorknob. “Did you find the story that you hoped to tell the world?”
“It’s a curse,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “And now you’ve cursed me. Goodbye, Mr. Adair. I think this is the last we’ll be seeing of each other.”
She opened the door and stepped into the sitting room, the old man’s shrill laughter chasing her from Suite 14B.
“It’s a secret, Ms. Granger!” he shrieked between cackles. “It’s a secret, not a curse!”
Granger left him there, laughing like the madman that he surely was. She took the elevator down to the lobby, unpinning her identification on the way down.
“Oh, there you are, Jennie,” Rita, the head nurse, said. “I was hoping you might...”
Granger swept right past her, pausing only once in the foyer to toss her badge in the garbage. The outer doors yawned open, a rush of cold air flooding into the Baptist Towers Rest Home, and Jenny stormed out into it, oblivious to presence of goose bumps rising like dunes on her forearms.
“You’ll never believe this,” he said. He was in his early twenties; the smirk came easily to him, and he had much occasion to use it at the Atrium Retirement Villas. “That old broad in 23C claims that she saw the first Thanksgiving! Says it’s all there—right in those old contact lenses of hers. Can you believe anyone still wears those things?”
“Granger?” the head nurse replied. She thought that if the kid could finish up the week, he might actually work out. Then again, young people like him came and went all the time. That was the nature of assisted living.
Troy Spenser consulted the clipboard he was holding. “Uh…yeah. Jennifer Granger. You guys must have heard that one before, I take it?”
Beverly Quemps nodded. God, but a cigarette sounded good! She yawned. “Ms. Granger has been singing that particular tune since she joined us...oh, I don’t know, nine or ten years ago. Only it gets worse right around the holidays—when the big day’s just a couple of weeks away.”
Spenser’s smile widened just a fraction. “Did anybody ever check it out?”
Quemps frowned. “Now why would someone go and encourage her?”
Spenser shrugged. “Well, that’s not something you hear every day, you know. It just sounds interesting, I guess.”
Quemps waved her hand, like she was shooing a fly. She rummaged in the front pocket of her smock, hunting for her cigarettes. “Nothing interesting about a senile old woman’s fantasies, Troy. It can be harmful to their minds if you encourage certain things. We have to be careful in what we acknowledge as reality. Mind the front here while I step outside for a cigarette, would you?”
Spenser nodded. He put Granger’s chart down and took a seat at the front desk, where his eyes found the bank of monitors that displayed everything inside the Atrium’s walls. One lonely camera was trained on a closed door.
Hell, he thought, maybe the old broad’s seen some interesting stuff. Yeah, she’s lying about the Thanksgiving thing, but who was to say there might not be other interesting things to look at? Contact lenses!
He laughed out loud at the thought of it. Nobody wore lenses anymore—not since ocular replacements had gone mainstream.
Spenser hated the gig—the clients were often hostile—but for the first time since he’d signed his employment agreement, he was just a little excited about the following day’s shift.
If the old woman wanted someone to take a look, why, he’d help her out.
Where was the harm in it? He could indulge an old woman’s fantasies during the holidays—it was, after all, the happiest time of the year…
The End


This is What Happened

Stephen King writes eloquently here (and in another less-publicized essay titled "Great Hookers I Have Known") about the power of great first lines. Look, his introductory line to the supremely underrated The Mist is still one of the very best you'll find in literature, and it's been recycled probably dozens of times. Here it is:
This is what happened.
I love it. Absolutely have to push forward with that one, if nothing else than for its stark ambiguity. If you love stories, the dare is right there.

Come with me, that line says. Let's get to the bottom of this... 

Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs was one of the best handful of stories I read last year, so I was happy for Duncan and Klages when I saw that the story won a World Fantasy Award. This multi-layered yarn is woven through with magic and love--with a genuine sense of place and a truly beating heart. It's an impressive story in its narrative scope, attention to esoteric film history, and focus on the power of the past to leave a mark on the present. 

If you're looking to get lost for an hour, I'd start here...


Ships in the Night

An accurate representation of my relationship with the Jacksonville Jaguars. We're wasting time trying to prove who's right...


They Crossed the Heavens

Charleton checked his watch—maybe an hour of daylight left.
A cabin stood three miles to his north, and he picked up the pace, the only sound the rustle of trees in the wind and the almost constant baying of the wolves that were circling him.
This, he had decided, would be his final hunt. Brayer Cattle paid him well, but he didn’t need the money. Hadn’t needed it in years, really.
No, when all was said and done, he simply enjoyed killing them.
But this was different. They were closing in on him.
He covered terrain in sips and swallows. At dusk, the sky opened, spilling snow over the Oregon backwoods. Charleton sighed and ran for the meadow—and the cabin in the distance.
He was halfway there when he heard their approach. He wheeled, rifle leveled. A dozen majestic wolves fanned out around him, stalking him. Herding him. He trotted for the cabin, just as a horrible clatter of tin bells and thunderous hooves exploded behind him.
Startled, he sprawled there in the snow as a procession of spectral creatures astride eight-legged steeds thundered through the sky above him. Hounds—dilapidated creatures, their bone and gristle showing—snapped at the wolves, scattering them.
The procession roared past, a demonic maiden leering at Charleton from her saddle.

“The wild hunt,” he gasped, knowing all too well that the wolves were the least of his concerns, and that the worst of it was really only beginning.



The Beast Roils

They huddled together on the far side of the spit, whitecaps spraying surf over the jetties in the last of the afternoon light. What remained of the village watched from the mainland, their torches low in the persistent drizzle. Mostly, there were only women and children left.
A pile of corpses, what Briggs prayed was the last of the leviathan’s brood, blazed at the far end of the spit. Gobbets of fat sizzled in the inferno; it generated a sooty cloud that stung the eye and fouled the air.
“And their mother?” Stern asked. He had yet to bury his sons, and the shock of what had happened in the harbor was etched on his features. “What is to be done of her blasted corpse?”
“It’ll burn, John,” Briggs replied. “It’ll burn like her cursed spawn. We’ll haul whatever’s left out to sea, and sink it so deep it'll never see the sun again.”
Night fell as they shuffled into their skiffs, pulling hard for shore. The fire glowed in the distance, growing dimmer as they approached the harbor. They were almost to the edge of the ruined waterfront when a cry—a piercing note of rage and utter sadness—drowned the howls of the western wind.
Briggs thrust his lantern into the darkness, keenly aware that the very night itself was changing.
“Lo!” he shouted as the first appendage whipped out of the sky. It fell heavy on a skiff, splintering wood and bone in one easy motion. “The beast is risen! 'Tis Father, returned to claim his kin!”


Monday Matinee: "The Elevator"

If you wanted me to sit still in the 1980s (thankfully they weren't handing out ADD meds like candy back then for kids that had a little restless streak in them), you had to put me down in front of The Twilight Zone. This particular episode had me spellbound. It had everything that a young boy could imagine: exploration of an abandoned research lab, an intriguing plot about fixing the world's hunger problem, and giant spiders.

Really, really big spiders. 

It's short, but still really effective...


Go Ducks! Kings in the North!

From Troy to Bend and clear down to Horse Hill. From the beaches of Brookings to the bluffs of Astoria and across the foggy gorge to Hood River. Across all of the meadows, valleys, mountains, and towns in between...let there be a full and concerted marshaling of human positivity toward the young athletes of the mighty University of Oregon.

Men are coming. 

Brutal, savage, smart men with devious plans. Men with bad intentions and high IQs. They come on airships to Eugene, intent on taking what's rightfully ours. 

They converge on Autzen Stadium, the true and just kingdom of American collegiate football. They want what we have: supremacy in the North. 

But our team is ready. We're sharp. We're dedicated, focused, and prepared.

We are Ducks.

Destiny is yours, fellas. We knew when we looked at the schedule that men were coming. We knew all along that the road to achievement would be filled with pitfalls, and that Stanford represented the greatest challenge of all.

Destiny is yours. Take it!


Three Underrated Horror Films

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
I felt this way when I took the Greyhound to Pendleton once
John Carpenter made this little gem in the golden years of the horror boom. Sam Neill gives one of his typically strong turns here as an investigator exploring the impacts that a horror writer's books have on their audience. There are a number of genuinely unsettling moments in this film, but the greatest is that nighttime bicycle ride of that elderly woman. Shoot, friends. You'll get some chills there. I really love the sequence in the opening credits, with the huge printing press running off thousands of copies of Cane's books. That's a great example of using those integral first moments for audience orientation. 

That'll cut a toughness groove in the ol' gray matter...
Ravenous (1999)
I love Antonia Bird's film. The pacing, mise-en-scene, sound, and the acting are all fantastic. The setting, California's alpine country, is creepy as hell.

Oh, and this is a Wendigo story. A great Wendigo story.

Guy Pearce's turn as a late-to-the-party convert is precious, and his direct opposition with Robert Carlyle is super compelling. It's a slow build toward a terrifying third act, and I think it's not just a great horror film, but one of the best movies of the last two decades.

The Jacket (2005)
There's a sorrow that permeates this film that truly cuts to the core of what horror is: the loss of personal identity. I don't care if it's dementia in The Notebook or paranoia in Jacob's Ladder, but losing track of one's sense of self scares the crap out of me. 
No thanks...

Keira Knightly and Adrien Brody give phenomenal turns. We forget how talented Brody is sometimes, but he puts his full range of talents on display here as a Gulf War Veteran trying to deal with terrible post-war psychiatric abuse (this film shares a kinship with Jacob's Ladder, to be sure). 

The slow, deliberate blurring of reality and hallucination, coupled with our protagonist's descent into madness is moving. This isn't a film for the faint of heart or the distracted. It takes concentration and investment, but it's wholly worth the effort.


Cold on the Mountain

All they wanted was a vacation to the Grand Canyon. Instead, they found themselves on a collision course with a terrible, timeless darkness.

Welcome to Adrienne, home to history’s worst serial killers and mass murderers. Nestled in an isolated meadow high in the Sierra Nevada, Adrienne is sort of like a cosmic lint trap. It collects the universe’s negative energy—all of our blackest human impulses—before purging that darkness back into the world in a yearly lottery. From Hitler to Bin Laden…Bundy to Gacy, Adrienne is the way station for dark energy that doesn’t just pass on—it passes through.

When Phil Benson decides to take an unmarked detour over the mountain, he drives his family into the mouth of madness, where they are forced to join a captive labor pool with little hope for freedom. Escape is pointless and time stretches out into eternity, with every new day the same as the last.

Sometimes, it’s better just to skip the shortcut.

With echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Stephen King’s Needful Things, and Blake Crouch’s Pines series, Cold on the Mountain treads the boundary between horror and supernatural suspense.


I like Amazon. I know there is a ton of controversy in the world of publishing on whether Amazon is healthy for the ecosystem, but I think they've been innovators in creating technology (the Kindle changed reading forever, in my view), offering an unparalleled customer experience, and pushing the envelope when it comes to innovative new programs for readers and writers.

I finished Cold on the Mountain this summer. It's a good book, I think--scary and creative and fun, all in one and right in time for Halloween. 

When I started thinking about the appropriate path to publication for this one, I thought I'd take a shot at the new Kindle Scout program. Why do that, as opposed to sending it out on submission and waiting eight months?

Love that marketing push, man. I think Amazon is doing writers a great service in making rights reversion an easy process. I think they are innovating, once again, with their approach to crowd feedback. But, more than any other single factor, I want their marketing prowess behind my book. Their algorithms push books to the top, and they target audiences like no other. 

Cold on the Mountain is now up for review. I'd be honored if you'd give it a read and, if appropriate, perhaps a nomination.  As always, thanks for reading, and for your support.


Creative Career Speaker Series at UCF: Digital Horror

Watch this. 

Seriously, we're about a week out from Halloween and you owe it to yourself. Watch it now, with the lights off.

Are you back? Good stuff...

Come meet Zach and listen to our panelists discuss their work at the Creative Career Speaker Series at the University of Central Florida THIS Friday. We will be meeting in VAB 132 from 2:00 to 4:00. We'll be discussing a variety of topics, including financing, producing, and marketing films, writing in the digital era, and narrative theory and horror fiction.

Send me an email if you have any questions. 


Creative Career Speaker Series at UCF: Digital Horror

Make plans to attend our panel discussion on technology, horror, and creative production this Friday at the University of Central Florida. We will be meeting in VAB 132 (Visual Arts) from 2:00 to 4:00. Topics for discussion include financing and marketing a film, screenwriting, narrative nonfiction, fiction, and theories on the future of horror in the digital era.

UCF's Barry Sandler will be discussing his work, his upcoming release Knock 'em Dead (2014), and the future of creative production in a changing technological environment. 


Long Live the American Reader

This is an awesome book. I love Postman's writing style and rhetorical savvy. But, at least in this humble theorist's views, much of the hand-wringing here hasn't come to pass. 

Alexis de Tocqueville: ...the invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace. (Postman 38)
And, as we move through the first years of the twenty-first century, we remain a highly literate culture. I know it's a little bit of selection bias on my part, but my students are reading some great stuff, and it's showing in their writing and thinking. 

Creative Career Speaker Series at UCF: Digital Horror

The Vander Kaays will be joining our panel next week at the University of Central Florida, where we will discuss technology's impact on the contemporary horror narrative. Please join us in VAB 132 on Friday, October 24, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. for a lively discussion!

Topics will include narrative theory, film making, sound production and editing, marketing, and writing. 

With Halloween just a few weeks away, it's a good time to discuss all those things that go bump in the night...


Creative Career Speaker Series at UCF: Digital Horror

I'm moderating a panel on technology's influence on the modern horror narrative down at UCF next Friday afternoon. Join us in VAB 132 to hear from Rob Cowie, who worked on The Blair Witch Project and whose film Exists (2014) will be released just in time for Halloween!

Shoot me an e-mail if you'd like more information...


Monday Matinee...

Showed this one to Lyla recently. Bad parenting move, but at least she's been spending more time with us at night...

"Gramma" is based on a Stephen King short story--a punchy little number about demonic possession and generational necromancy. Good stuff, and perfectly appropriate for the season.


Monday Matinee...

Tales From the Darkside was such a delicious thrill for me when I was a kid. Emily and I used to wait all weekend for Sunday nights, when WGN ran a couple of episodes back to back. My folks didn't care much for the program, so we always watched them on the back television--in the dark. Great times, and resonant stories.

I attended an Oktoberfest party out at the beaches with the girls this weekend, and Lyla hopped into the host's pool with a couple of other kids. It was a potluck, and the kids asked for carrots, so I brought them a paper plate filled with them and they chomped down. There were little bits of carrots floating around in that pool, and I suddenly remembered the Darkside episode "Anniversary Dinner." 

Did I tell 'em about the plot? You bet I did! It's October, after all...

I'll embed some of these great episodes here every Monday. Yeah, I know I'm posting this on a Tuesday. It's been a crazy busy time at the college. Meetings, committee work, grading, teaching, writing, UCF work, and family time have drawn me in ten directions. 

Take a look at the story above. It's just my kind of horror (strange, mundane, tiny bit plausible), and it always made me think twice about that quaint little cottage in the woods...



sun climbs at low tide
oyster pops and muddy flats
Earth sighs, day begins


These Strange Worlds: Fourteen Dark Tales

Just in time for our yearly voyage into the heart of the October Country!

Available on iBooks above, or you can grab a digital copy over at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, or B&N...

Paperback here...

Happy Autumn, everyone!


Hug 'Em Up and Build Respect

I'm no perfect parent, so I won't tell anyone else how to go about executing one of the toughest, most rewarding jobs there is in life. My folks weren't perfect either, but I have nothing but respect for how they raised my sisters and me. They were fair and clear with their boundaries. When we pushed them, we were punished. I took the strap once. Another time I got a spanking. 

These were teaching moments, and certainly not abuse.

I spanked Lyla when she was a toddler. She'd run out into the street, and I gave her three quick swats through her diaper. The message made it through, and that was the last time she's had a spanking (though Jeanne and I both use the threat of a spanking as a motivator). It's also the last time I can recall her walking into a parking lot or wandering out into the street without taking full stock of the situation.

I much prefer to discipline our daughter through expectations and respect. She respects us (and she is a very well-behaved five-year-old girl), and it's clear that she is hurt when we aren't pleased with her. We have had some good talks recently about behavior, and we're fine with taking away some of the things that she loves doing with us (trips to the beach, the movies, the park). That seems to do the trick so far. 

Cris Carter made an impassioned plea on air (ESPN) the other day. He said that parents need to understand that times have changed. There are other ways of dealing with familial discipline--ways that don't include physical or emotional scarring.

I'll leave it at that. Parenting is a journey, and context changes things. To this point, I can only say that a stern word or two followed up with a heartfelt hug has been working well for us... 

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...