Social activism

I’ve gone on two protest marches so far this year. I’ve contacted my congressman. I joined the ACLU.

And I’ve written to complain to a cereal company!

I’ve always been a big consumer of cereal. Growing up, I ate it for breakfast most days. I had a number of favorites, and Alpha-Bits was always near the top of the list. At first, it might have had something to do with the fact that they were letter-shaped, but I enjoy the flavor and consistency.

A number of years ago, for reasons I don’t quite understand, the cereal was pulled from grocery stores. However, it didn’t vanish completely. It was still available at places like Target and Wal-Mart. So I’d stock up on a couple of boxes any time I went to those stores.

I didn’t notice the “New & Improved” banner on the top of the most recent two boxes I bought. But I did notice something wrong when I poured the first bowl. The cereal was bigger and puffier, and it didn’t taste the same. And not in a good way. Quelle dommage! I did a search of social media and found out I wasn’t the only person who felt that way.

So, I decided to write the company, Post. I told them it reminded me of the New Coke debacle. I asked them to bring back Alpha-Bits Classic! I had a response from them saying they would pass my complaint on to their Product Development Department.

I don’t expect to go on a March for Cereal, but I’m not going to take this lying down!

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March for Science

Signs for ScienceOn Saturday, I took part in the Houston satellite March for Science. The organizers expected 10,000 people to show up, but the semi-official estimates suggest that 15,000 people showed up. There were a lot of scientists from academia and industry, students, etc., but also a lot of non-scientists who are simply upset at the way science is being dismissed.

There were some very creative signs, some of them quite witty, science-based, punny and nerdy. One woman turned to me and, with a straight face, said that she was surprised to find out that scientists had a sense of humor! The march was supposed to start at 11:00, but we ended up standing around until 11:30, leading us to theorize that, as far as scientists are concerned, protesting isn’t an exact science. The delay was probably on account of the crowd size. The original plan was for us to stick to sidewalks but the numbers meant the police had to barricade some streets for us.

The most common chant during the march went like this:

What do we want?
Evidence-based science!
When do we want it?
After peer review!

When we reached City Hall, there were speeches by physicians from the Medical Center, scientists from Rice, NASA and industry, and some award-winning high school and university students. There were hundreds of other satellite protests around the world, including Antarctica. Bill Nye was at the DC march, and Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) showed up in London.

I’ve had Deadpool on the DVR for months and finally got around to watching it this weekend. I had no idea what to expect beyond the general rumblings I’d heard about it. I don’t know the character, and only know a little bit about the mutant universe. I have no idea who the big metal guy was, but I did chuckle at some of the inside jokes: Deadpool expressing his confusion over whether it was Stewart of McAvoy. The visit to the manor where no other mutants could be seen because of the low budget. The breaking of the fourth wall inside of the fourth wall, so that was sixteen walls being broken. However, the real surprise to me was Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Homeland), as I’ve never seen her before. My favorite moment was when she said “ruh roh” when her boyfriend hit the high-scoring slot at the carnival.

I also binged my way through all ten episodes of Season 3 of Bosch. The story picks up where it left off at the end of Season 2. The trial arising from the discoveries in that season is still in development, and some of Bosch’s off-the-books actions endanger the prosecution. There are new murders to solve, too, using storylines and elements clever extracted from the novels The Black Echo and A Darkness More Than Night. Titus Welliver has become Harry Bosch for me, and I don’t think I’ll be able to read a new Connelly novel without seeing him in my head. The story takes Bosch down some dark roads and leaves him in a morally conflicted position. I also got a kick out of how many people roll their eyes when they are in his presence. His teenage daughter has that reaction perfected, but his partners, colleagues, boss, even the chief can be seen rolling their eyes. When I commented about this on Twitter, I got back a pitch-perfect response from whoever is in charge of social media for the show: a tweet containing a short video snippet with Bosch’s boss rolling her eyes at him!

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Comicpalooza 2017

In anticipation of the new Twin Peaks series, I’ve been watching the original. I remember how eager we were to see it when it first aired in 1990. There was big buzz around it, and each week we dissected the meaning of all the bizarre stuff that happened. I’d forgotten that the first season was a mere eight episodes. It’s a tad dated, but it’s still mesmerizing.

Last weekend we saw Going In Style, the comedy starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin. It was pretty good—I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original version. It’s a heist caper more than anything else, and it has some funny scenes and it treats the aging protagonists with respect most of the time.

I’m on the Literary Track at Comicpalooza in Houston again this year. I’m on a panel on Friday morning, May 12 at 10:00 called “Too Many Plot Bunnies: Managing Runaway Ideas” and a round-table discussion at 4:00 pm on Crime/Mysteries/Thrillers. I’ll also be signing at the Barnes & Noble booth at 12:30 Friday, and they’ll have copies of The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, my two Dark Tower books, and the X-files anthology for sale.

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Pain-Man has a date

The story was accepted last May, but I found out this morning that “Pain-Man” will be included in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. My first appearance there. It’s about a man of a certain age who decides to fight crime after a humiliating incident.

I made my first risotto last weekend, and it turned out pretty well. It’s more labor-intensive than most of my cooking projects. You have to babysit it for nearly half an hour, adding liquid, stirring, adding more liquid, and so on, but the results were worth it. It went well with the marinated tuna steaks.

I’m really enjoying Hotel Beau Séjour on Netflix. I’m eight episodes in (out of 10) and we still don’t know who killed Kato (and others), but some secrets have been disclosed.

We watched a couple of films last weekend. First up was 20th Century Women with Annette Benning and Elle Fanning. It’s set in 1979 and focuses on a single mother who decides she needs to do something to guarantee that her 15-year-old son gets everything he needs to become a proper man, so she enlists the help of various people in her orbit, including a couple of renters in her rambling old house. The characters are terrific and the plot is ramshackle and spontaneous. There’s no end game in sight, just evolution and a gentle reminder to not look for problems where there might not be any.

Then we watched Miss Sloan, with Jessica Chastain as a lobbyist who jumps ship to take on a gun control bill with a boutique agency. She’s hard as nails, calculating, manipulative and cold, and the movie never does answer how she got to be the way she is. There’s a passing reference to a youth where she had to lie all the time, but nothing more, and maybe that’s for the best. Any answer to that question might have been found wanting. The movie dives deep into the kinds of antics that take place in D.C. all the time, and there’s a wonderful twist at the end that makes the whole thing pay off. Sure, the gun lobby hated the movie and reveled in the fact that it made no money at all, but any other issue could have been chosen. The film isn’t about gun control so much as the dirty tricks and deals that go on behind the scenes around any hot button topic.

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The Halloween Tree

I’m happy to reveal that my original short story “The Halloween Tree,” will be in Volume Four of Halloween Carnival, an anthology edited by Brian Freeman for Hydra/Random House. One of my Necon friends made the connection between the story title and a blog post from a year ago and, yes, the story was inspired by a real tree—although events have been greatly fictionalized and expanded.

Halloween Carnival will be released in five eBook installments during October, one per week, with each section containing five stories. Some of them are reprints and some are originals. The full anthology is then to be printed subsequently, I believe.

How’s this for a list of who’s who in horror: Robert McCammon, Lisa Morton, John R. Little, Keven Lucia, Mark Allan Gunnels (Volume 1, October 3); Glen Hirshberg, Lee Thomas, Holly Newstein, Del James, Al Sarrantonio ( Volume 2, October 10); Kelley Armstrong, Kate Maruyama, Michael McBride, Taylor Grant, Greg Chapman (Volume 3, October 17); Ray Garton, Kealan Patrick Burke, C.A. Suleiman, Paul Melniczek and me (Volume 4, October 24) and Richard Chizmar, Lisa Tuttle, Norman Prentiss, Kevin Quigley and Peter Straub (Volume 5, October 31).

I finished the first draft of another short story this week, the one that I got up and wrote notes for several days ago. I’m very pleased by how it turned out. I finished it at the same table at the bar at the local Mexican restaurant as the previous tale, so I gotta think those margaritas are tax deductible. I dictated the story into Word, patched up all the transcription errors and gave it a full edit pass before setting it aside to percolate for a few days before I look at it again.

I’m three episodes into a cool Flemish crime series called Hotel Beau Séjour on Netflix. In the opening moments, a teenager wakes up in a strange hotel room, realizes something is odd, wanders into the bathroom and finds her own bloody corpse in the bathtub. It takes her a little while to conclude that she is really dead. However, a handful of people in town can still see her, talk to her, interact with her—but no one else. Her body is removed from the tub and turns up again later, having been dumped in the reservoir. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the people who can see her: her town-drunk father, her step-sister, her ex-boyfriend’s father, a total stranger. And the rules of her ghost-hood are fascinating, too. She can interact with things, but no one else can tell. She can make phone calls that ring, but the person who answers can’t hear anyone. She gets on a motorbike and rides away, but the motorcycle is still where it was originally. People bump into her and she feels it, but they don’t. She sleeps, has nightmares, drinks coffee. The plot has lots of small town secrets to be revealed, of course. It has a touch of The Returned feel to it, but Kato is the only walking dead person in the story…so far at least.

I can’t wait for the episode of The Americans where Stan finds out who his neighbors have been all this time. I can’t wait.

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When Death Answers Your Letter

A funny thing happened yesterday. I was working on a short story and I reached a point where I was convinced I had written myself into a corner. I had conjured a scenario so specific that I couldn’t see my way out. I put the story aside for the rest of the day.

Except somewhere around midnight, I woke up with a handful of bullet points rolling around in my head. If this, then that, then that, then something else, and it would all work, and it would be even better than I’d planned for the story, which I’ve been battling off and on for the better part of two months. I’ve written entire other stories in the interim.

I was afraid that if I waited until morning, I’d forget all my perfect little additions and changes, so I got up and went into another room to write down these ideas. I got most of them, and the one that I’d forgotten to transcribe was still with me when I woke up several hours later. So now I know I can finish the story. Funny how things work, sometimes.

We watched Collateral Beauty, a movie that has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than what’s-his-name’s approval rating. Way lower, although audiences seemed to like it. I thought it was okay, up to a point, and then it went a touch too far, and then another. Will Smith plays the owner of a small ad agency who loses his daughter and goes into a spiral. He writes letters to Death, Love and Time. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that much, and that the incarnation of those concepts show up in his life to respond. What the trailer doesn’t tell you, and what seemed like a pretty terrific idea, is the reason why those concepts are personified by the people they are. They’re there to bring him back to reality so he can make some crucial decisions about his company, and they also connect with his three major partners in the firm—a guy who is having Love problems, a guy staring Death in the face and a woman who thinks Time is running out for her. Pretty slick. Good actors, all, too. But then the movie makes a couple of BIG REVEALS at the end that just destroyed it for me. Sure, there was some foundation laid for one of them (“if only we could be strangers again”), but it requires a lot of the audience to truly buy into it, and the other one was just, well, pointless. Did they expect the audience to go “oh, my gosh?” We didn’t. I just groaned.

We’re on a Stephen Fry binge. We watched the six episodes of Last Chance to See, in which he joins up with zoologist Mark Carwardine to revisit the endangered species that Carwardine had sought out twenty years earlier in the company of Douglas Adams, which was turned into a book of the same name. Now we’re watching Stephen Fry in America, in which he visits all 50 states in six episodes, scrutinizing America through the eyes of an outsider, sort of a pop-anthropologist. He ends up in some very unlikely places (a coal mine and a nuclear submarine, both of which are small places for a man of his stature, a body farm, a parole hearing) and meets a lot of people who have no earthly idea who he is, except for Sting, who does. It’s fun stuff. Light entertainment. He’s a bit of a scaredy-cat some of the time, though. Not quite the intrepid traveler that Michael Palin is.

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Sense of an Ending

We saw the movie adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man-Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending last weekend. I haven’t read the book (I will now), but the cast alone was enough to convince us to see the film. It stars the always reliable Jim Broadbent as the divorced father of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, who is hugely pregnant and single. He’s on decent terms with his ex-wife, and runs a tiny classic camera shop.

He receives an unexpected letter from the mother of a girl he knew when he was at university. A girl he fancied but never quite managed to get on with, and who will be played by Charlotte Rampling in the modern era. The letter is posthumous, and it is a bequest of some money and an object, unspecified, that is the movie’s McGuffin. Rampling’s character has it and won’t give it up.

The story can be compared to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in that it is driven by an ill-considered letter written under passionate conditions that has far-reaching implications. However, Broadbent’s character has written that letter out of his memory of events from his college days. Suddenly he is forced to reckon with the reality of what he did, and the consequences.

It’s the kind of film that kept us talking long after it was over. The big reveal toward the end makes you go back and re-evaluate other things that happened in the movie and question why certain characters did what they did. Ultimately, why did the mother want to will the object to Broadbent? What did she hope to achieve?

Apparently Broadbent’s character is treated less well in the novel, but even here he self-centered, demanding and stalker-ish, although by the end he has something of an awakening. This thing from the past belongs to him and he’s determined to get it. It asks the question: are we better off revisiting certain things from the past or does it just re-open old wounds and cause new pains? We thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Jackie and Ove

I finished the first draft of a 4400-word short story yesterday, sitting at the bar in the local Mexican restaurant while drinking a margarita. I wonder if that makes the margarita tax deductible? Then I dictated it into the computer and spent the morning cleaning up the transcription mishaps. I’ll let it sit for a while and then make some more editing passes at it. It doesn’t have a market in mind, although it originated from something a couple of friends of mine discussed on Twitter a while back.

I generally watch something on the television during my morning workout session. Today I started a Netflix series called Four Seasons in Havana, which is billed as Caribbean Noir. It’s made up of four 90-minute episodes that adapt crime novels by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. They’re set in the 1990s, and though noir, the series has the luscious color of the tropics. The main character, the police officer, is an aspiring writer who adores Salinger and is more interested in the literary and artistic side of his country than in crime, although he’s very good at that, too. He’s divorced, drinks a lot, doesn’t have a car or a dog, but he does have a fighting fish and, after the opening to the first episode, a new love interest. I picked up the first novel in the series, too, called Havana Blue, although it wasn’t the first to be translated.

We watched Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady. The wrapping device is an interview she conducted (Billy Crudup plays the reporter) shortly after the assassination in which she does her best to seal her husband’s place in history, and succeeds in imprinting the term Camelot in the national memory. The events of the movie focus on the assassination and its aftermath, although there are some flashbacks to the time when the Kennedys allowed cameras into the White House and Jackie conducted a long tour of the place, showing it to America for the first time. Portman is quite convincing as Jackie, but the former first lady comes off as mercurial and indecisive, although one has to consider what she had just been through and continued to go through.

The we watched A Man Called Ove, based on the novel by Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman. It’s about a 59-year-old man, newly widowed, who is something of a grouch. He lives in a gated neighborhood—he’s responsible for the gate—and he rules it like a tyrant, making note of any offenses against the list of rules he and a former friend (now nemesis) came up with. To him, everyone is an idiot. A new family moves in: a husband, his Persian wife and their two daughters, and they become determined to thaw him out and be good neighbors. Over the course of the movie, we learn about Ove’s tragic life. It’s a good-hearted film with comic elements and dramatic elements.

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If I say it enough, it will become true

My interview with Stephen King and Richard Chizmar about their collaborative novella, “Gwendy’s Button Box,” is up at CD Online.

We were familiar with the name Seretse Khama from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe, the protagonist of that series, often reflects about what a great man Sir Seretse was. The man who led Botswana into independence.

So, when we saw the trailer for A United Kingdom a couple of times last fall, we knew we wanted to see it. Khama was to be King of Bechuanaland, a tiny and poor nation just above South Africa. He studied law in England while his uncle ran the country as regent. However, he upset a lot of people by falling in love with and marrying a white woman. The predominantly black and repressed people of his nation weren’t eager to have a white sovereign—and her family and social circle weren’t thrilled by her choice of spouse, either. A national crisis ensued, with the British applying pressure because they didn’t want to annoy South Africa, in the throes of apartheid but Britain’s main source of gold.

The movie stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, and tells a reasonably faithful version of events from the 1940s through the 1950s. It’s a love story above all else, but also an interesting look at the birth of a nation and lots of political posturing, including a surprising revelation about a less than stellar moment in Churchill’s career.

We also saw The Light Between Oceans, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. Fassbender’s character, back to Australia after World War I, signs on as the lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus. He meets Vikander and marries her, and the two live together in relative isolation. She has a couple of miscarriages and then a baby is miraculously delivered into their hands. They make a morally dubious decision and have to live with the consequences when the truth comes out a few years later. It was easy to understand why people do what they do in the film. Tough choices all around. After relating everything about their early lives in minute detail, I wish the film had spent more time looking at events after the major crisis instead of flitting pas years of the characters’ lives, where some undoubtedly interesting things must have transpired.

I’m about ¾ through a Norwegian series on Netflix called Occupied.  It’s based on an idea from novelist Jo Nesbø. In the near future, Norway stops producing oil and gas to concentrate on green energy from thorium, leaving Europe in the lurch. The EU gets together and nominates Russia to occupy the oil-producing regions in the North Sea, forcing the ruling party in Norway to abandon their platform and continue to supply oil to the continent. It’s a fascinating look at the politics of the region and reflects on our current situation in interesting ways. In one memorable scene, the PM threatens to destroy another politician who wants to break away from the party by saying he will revel something about her actions after the occupation. “But that’s not true,” she says. “If I say it often enough, it will become true,” he responds. Sounds familiar.

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Take this Jobs

Always a pleasure to receive my annual check from the Public Lending Right Commission in Canada. Money just for having my books in libraries in Canada. How cool is that? One of the books I have listed is When the Night Comes Down (you have to be at least a 25% contributor to register a book, so I can’t add anthologies in general), and I’ve earned significantly more from it from the PLRC than I have from royalties.

I had an interesting experience yesterday. Something I tweeted was retweeted by someone with a few million followers. So all through the Academy Awards last night, I was treated to a steady stream of likes and retweets! It was interesting to see something like that propagate. On of my regular moderately popular tweets gets 100-300 engagements. This one has had over 150,000, and counting. It seems to have taken on a life of its own.

We were sort of disappointed by Steve Jobs, which we watched on Saturday. Not by the movie, per se, but by the fact that so much of it was utter fabrication. The movie’s structure was interesting. All the action took place around major product launches: The Macintosh, the NEXT and the iMac. That meant that we never got to see Jobs in his regular environment. Which meant that a lot of crises and confrontations had to be shoe-horned into the hours leading up to the product launches. From my reading afterwards, it appears that virtually none of those arguments happened, and certainly not in the stressful context of the launch prep. There’s no doubt that Jobs’ treatment of his daughter Lisa was reprehensible for a long time, but there’s no mention of the fact that she actually lived with Jobs and his wife (also not mentioned) and their children (ditto) for her last four years before college. Fassbender is good and Kate Winslet is very good, but you have to wonder what the point in making a biopic is if you’re going to make up most of the major facts to suit yourself.

Stay tuned Wednesday for my interview with Richard Chizmar and Stephen King about the collaborative novella that Entertainment Weekly will be launching.

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