The Search for Spock

My wife had to call AAA yesterday when her car wouldn’t start. They told her someone would be there in 30 minutes and gave her a hyperlink so she could monitor the responder’s location. The guy got there not in 30 minutes, but in five. And he had just the right battery among his gear to replace hers. Quite impressed with the service.

I posted my review of The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith, who is best known for his Arkady Renko books set in Russia (including Gorky Park). This is a standalone set in northern Italy in the closing weeks of World War II.

I finally (finally!) finished the fifth Game of Thrones novel, having put it aside several times to read other things. We’re about halfway through the fourth season of the TV series. We’ll probably pause there to watch the new season of Longmire on Netflix. I also have just one episode of the second season of Narcos left to watch.

We watched the documentary For the Love of Spock on VOD this weekend. It was directed by Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard. It started out as an exploration of the fictional character, but then Leonard Nimoy died in the midst of this project, so Adam decided to expand it to include some of his father’s life as well. It’s quite—as Spock would say—fascinating. Nimoy cast a wide net when it came to interview subjects, including Nimoy’s brother and daughter, many original cast members as well as the cast of the recent reboot, JJ Abrams, and a few random people like Jason Alexander. We were impressed by the massive block of credits. I only just realized that these were the people who had responded to the crowd-funding campaign to raise over $600,000 to cover the cost of licensing the photographs and video clips included in the documentary. Over 9000 people contributed, some as much as $10k, for which they got an associate producer credit.

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Netflix for short stories

This is my 27th anniversary at the day job. Technically, it’s tomorrow, but I won’t be at work on that day, so I’m calling today the anniversary. This time next year, I will have worked for the same company for exactly half my life (although the company has undergone a couple of name and ownership changes over the years). In this era, that’s a pretty good record, but I still have a couple of decades to go to achieve the longevity my father did with his company.

I finished writing another new short story by hand the night before last and dictated it into Word yesterday morning, which has become my new way of doing things lately. The story is a little over 4000 words and it didn’t change much during my first editing pass, other than to correct grammar and transcription errors. My favorite dictation error converted “Ghostbusters” to “Ghost bus tours,” although I also liked the change for “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to “Ghostwriters in the Sky.” This is my third new story in a few weeks. I have at least one more to write and a couple more markets to find submissions for. Then it’s back to novel land.

I don’t think I mentioned this review of the audio version of The X-files: The Truth is Out There. It says, in part:  “’Phase Shift’ was easily the highlight of the anthology for me, and centers around a house and its inhabitants confronted by a strange anomaly. This is a really good story with a strong, and strongly executed, premise, the ending of which highlights the particular darkness one may confront in such an odd situation. Sorry for being vague, but this is a good one to go into blindly.” I approve of this message!

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Mamatas contacted me about a new project called Great Jones Street, named after a New York/SoHo street that was also the title of a Don DeLillo novel. Their plan is to become the Spotify or Netflix of short fiction. Nick was curating the mystery section of the project and solicited a couple of reprints from me. So far, they’ve been great to work with: the contract came almost immediately and payment within a week after that. My stories aren’t available yet, so I won’t name them here. Stay tuned: there’s an app for everything these days!

The cover and table of contents for the double issue (#74/75) of Cemetery Dance magazine is now available at their website. I have four pieces in this trade-magazine-formatted issue: an interview with Joe Hill (to be fair, most of the content in that piece is his, not mine), two featured reviews and one essay. But do I get my name on the cover? 😉

I finished Marcella on Netflix last week, and am now looking forward to the next season. It’s a British crime series in which the main character, a female Detective Sargent, has violent fugues when put under great stress, so she has gaps in her memory. Sort of like the alcoholic fugues featured in The Girl on the Train. Now I’m onto season 2 of Narcos and enjoying it. It’s very violent, but it’s a fascinating look at a turbulent time and place. My wife and I are nearing the end of the third season of Game of Thrones. Looks like it’s time for a…Red Wedding (to be heard in Billy Idol’s voice).

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Pate de foie gras

I finished a new short story this weekend and got it off to its potential market. I have a few more of these that I’d like to tackle in the next four to six weeks. Then it’s back to novel land, a territory I haven’t visited in a while.

We saw Sully this weekend, the Clint Eastwood biopic about Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s successful landing of an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River after losing both engines when the aircraft encountered a flock of Canada geese. Tom Hanks is very good in portraying Sully as a man who was sure of his decision but who wasn’t terribly comfortable with the spotlight of publicity.

Because the movie needed an antagonist, the NTSB investigation is depicted as confrontational. They argue that Sully made the wrong decision, that he could have made it back to La Guardia or over to Teterboro, NJ, according to all the computer simulations. The panel included Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) and Jamie Sheridan (The Stand). Laura Linney was Mrs. Sully, relegated to the wings (at home) while the drama unfolded.

The crash itself is depicted in a very straightforward manner. In fact, the entire picture is solid filmmaking without any unnecessary flash or pizzazz. There are a couple of scenes where Sully imagines what might have happened if he’d made different decisions that will probably be disturbing to New Yorkers, especially given the weekend the movie debuted. The only odd thing about the movie was the way it ended. It just stopped, after a joke made by the copilot during the NTSB hearing. Fade to black and then end credits. It felt abrupt.

At the end, the audience that saw the movie with us applauded. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that. It is a feel-good film, with a few patriotic tugs, but I wonder at clapping for a motion picture, where there’s no one present to receive the adulation. It was a spontaneous reaction. I was reminiscing with my wife afterward about how, in the very early days of air travel (in my lifetime), people used to applaud whenever a plane landed. Every time. I wonder when that stopped. Probably at around the same time that people stopped dressing up to go on a flight. (My father always wore a suit and a hat when he flew.)

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High seas

I got my semi-annual royalty check for When the Night Comes Down, the Dark Arts collection that contains four of my stories. I can now buy that pack of gum I’ve been saving up for! The book is available in both trade paperback and eBook if you ever want to sample a variety of my writings.

I also sold a new short story, which is always nice. I signed the contract but the book hasn’t been announced, so I’ll hold off announcing the details until later. I will say that the story involves a couple of characters who have appeared in other stories of mine.

My wife and I were off the grid on a four-day cruise over the long weekend to celebrate her birthday. People generally ask us where we went, but it doesn’t really matter, because we didn’t get off the ship! They used to have this thing called the cruise to nowhere, and that would suit us just fine. There was just one stop, in Cozumel, where we’ve spent time before, so we decided to avoid the throngs of tourists and enjoy the mostly empty ship. We even got in a round of minigolf on the upper deck! It was a very nice, relaxing four days indeed. We had some great meals, lots of wine, took in a couple of shows and read a bunch. The image above is the menagerie of towel animals that we ended up with in our stateroom by the end of the trip. A different one appeared each evening during the turn-down service.

After finishing The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, I read Burial by Neil Cross, the guy who created and writes Luther, a compelling crime novel about a guy who covers something up then gets involved with someone directly affected by what he covered up and then has the whole thing come crashing down around him a few years later. Gritty and tense.

Then I read Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, translated from the French. It’s the second book in a trilogy, but it was the first to be translated into English of the three. It starts with a kidnapping, but by the end of the first section, you realize that the person who took the title character had understandable motivations and the victim is more than she seems. By the end of the second section, there’s another reversal and you come to the conclusion that the victim-cum-villain had her own particularly understandable motives for what seems like a rash of random crimes. The book deftly plays with the readers sympathies. It has some quirky characters and a very tight plot. I went from there straight into Irene, the first book in the trilogy. Alas, I know the ultimate fate of the title character, but the story doesn’t start with that situation, but with another set of gruesome murders. Good stuff.

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The Hip

I finished the first draft of a new short story this morning, my first in a while. The draft took about seven days, and the story came in at about 4900 words, which is quite a bit longer than I expected. However, it was over 5000 words before I did a pruning edit on it yesterday, and that was before I added the final two pages this morning.

I hand-wrote the first 4000 words and then I dictated it into Word on Monday morning so I could work on the computer from that point forward. I always have to proofread very carefully after I do that because the built-in voice recognition module of Windows 10 is quite good, but not perfect. I still have a couple of plot details to reconsider, but then it’s on to the proofing/revising stage. I have a week to get it ready for submission, but I hope to have it mostly done by the end of the weekend.

I moved away from Canada in the late 1980s, so I mostly missed out on The Tragically Hip. However, with all the publicity around their final concert tour, culminating in the final show on Saturday night, I’ve been re-educating myself on their music. I picked up a copy of “Yer Favorites,” a 2-CD collection of songs selected by the fans, which is a good introduction to their most popular songs. I watched some of the simulcast of the final concert on the CBC YouTube channel on Saturday, too.

I met Michael Koryta a couple of years ago at NECON and we’ve become friends ever since. He came into Houston for a signing at Murder By the Book last Friday. He almost didn’t make it: his flight was scheduled to land around noon, but that was the middle of a torrential downpour, so he got diverted but finally made it into Houston with a little time to spare for the 6:30 event he was doing with local author Bill Crider. Afterward, we went out to dinner with a couple of the MBTB people, which was a lot of fun. If you haven’t read any Koryta, check out his latest two books, which are part of a trilogy: Last Words and Rise the Dark. My introduction to him was The Prophet, which I can also highly recommend. Also high on my list: Those Who Wish Me Dead. I need to catch up on some of his back list.

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Murder on the High Cs

After five or six consecutive days with the temperatures exceeding 100° and the heat index in the mid 100-teens, we’ve had some relief. In the form of torrential rain, but we’ll take it. After a very soggy beginning to the year, we’ve been a while without any precipitation at all, so it’s a welcome return.

It rained a bit during the day on Saturday, but it was Saturday evening when the heavy stuff started. We could hear it from inside the movie theater at the local multiplex, pounding on the roof. When we got out, our car was in the attached parking structure. It wasn’t raining at the moment, anyway, so we contemplated going somewhere to eat. One glance at the dark, dark skies (it was 6:20 pm) had us reconsidering, so we headed toward home, thinking we might stop somewhere closer to the house. Then the skies opened up in a deluge, so we went straight home. Unlike many of our neighbors, we actually use our garage to store our cars, so we managed to avoid getting wet at all.

We saw Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (from The Big Bang Theory). Streep played the title character, a real-life socialite who aspired to being an opera singer despite having no talent or aptitude whatsoever. By carefully curating the attendees and excluding any critical media, she manages to produce a number of engagements over the years, including a final event at Carnegie Hall where a more true response to her painful caterwauling bubbles to the surface. (I wish I could take credit for coming up with today’s subject line, but someone else beat me to it.)

Helberg plays a young pianist hired to accompany her (apparently Helberg actually plays the piano throughout). His reactions to that first practice session are worth the price of admission alone. Afterward, we debated whether her husband (they had a chaste marriage because she developed syphilis thanks to her first husband when she was 18) was an enabler or was truly devoted. He allowed her to get into these situations and helped shield her from criticism by doling out wads of cash to compliant journalists. (By the same token, he was a mediocre actor and she confessed to hiding some of his worst reviews from him, too.) In the final analysis, she was happy doing what she did, so I guess there was no harm done, except to some eardrums and some musical sensibilities! Streep is her usual very good self, and Grant is a definite step above his usual bumbling, stammering persona. We won’t, however, be buying the soundtrack.

I got caught up on some delinquent book reviews recently. Check out Onyx Reviews for the following:

I’m working on my first new short story in a while, too. Writing it longhand. I have no idea where it’s going, but I’m getting there a day at a time.

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Turned in my 40th column for Cemetery Dance magazine last night. That’s a lotta words, especially factoring in how long the early ones were.

We watched a fascinating movie on Netflix called The Birth of Sake, a documentary about the sake makers at the family-owned Yoshida Brewery in northern Japan. For seven months a year, these men devote their lives to all the steps needed to convert rice into wine. They live at the brewery and get two days off a month during this period. Some of them get up at 5 am every day to tend to the vats. Others have to check on things every couple of hours during the night. It’s an intensive process, far more demanding than normal wine making. Many breweries have automated the process, but Yoshida is one of the few that still does it the traditional way. You have to believe that their attention to detail produces a significantly superior product in order for their sake to be competitive in the marketplace, but boy it sure does look like a lot of hard work.

We also watched Miles Ahead, the Don Cheadle-driven (co-written, directed, co-produced, starring) biopic of Miles Davis. I saw Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in June 1991, three months before he died. At that time, he couldn’t or wouldn’t speak when he was on stage. He held up placards with single words on them from time to time. In this film, Ewan McGregor plays a putative reporter from Rolling Stone who wants to get the big story of Davis’s prolonged hiatus. The McGuffin is a tape of Davis’s most recent recording sessions, claimed by the studio but stolen by Davis at gunpoint. A lot of people are after that tape, and viewers hope that there’s something worth hearing on it. Unlike many biopics, this one doesn’t show much of Davis’s life overall, focusing instead on this very brief period in the late seventies, with the occasional flashback. It’s almost a gangster movie, with shootouts and street chases. Fun stuff.

Getting out of the house, we saw the 3D version of Star Trek: Beyond, which was fun but not terribly memorable. We only opted for 3D because that showing fit with our schedule. There aren’t many 3D moments in the movie, but there is a level of added depth. Probably not worth the surcharge. I liked the Jaylah character quite a bit. Idris Elba was virtually unrecognizable save for his voice throughout much of the movie. There were entire minutes that I had no real idea what was happening because so much was going on at once. A little bit chaotic and dark.

I finished my re-watch of Stranger Things yesterday, in preparation for doing a tag-team review with Hank Wagner for Dead Reckonings. It was every bit as good the second time around.

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The Little Things

It’s always gratifying to receive an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow. In the introduction to the newest Best Horror of the Year, she mentions notable fiction in October Dreams II, including my story “The Boy in the White Sheet.”

And here’s a trip and a half: someone posted this photograph on Facebook. Its from Guillermo del Toro’s book At Home with Monsters, part of his massive library. Someone else observed that the tall volume with the silver spine on the second shelf is  my book, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. How cool is that?

We watched Hello, My Name is Doris on the weekend. It’s an indie film starring Sally Field as a woman of a certain age who has been looking after her mother for many years. The mother has just died and she’s now faced with all the possibilities of effectively being liberated from incarceration. She’s worked for the same company for years, doing data entry, and essentially being ignored. One day, a new, young coworker speaks to her in the elevator and she becomes infatuated with him. She has Walter Mitty-like fantasies about him and learns from the 13-year-old daughter of a friend (Tyne Daly) how to make a fake Facebook page to learn more about him. She pretends to like his favorite band, and they end up going out on the town a couple of times. He sees her, but he has no romantic interest in her. In fact has a girlfriend. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not a tragedy…it’s hard to say what it is…except it’s good. Field is fantastic in this part. She’s a hoarder and an eccentric, but she becomes fully alive despite her brother’s efforts to “fix” her. Peter Gallagher has a small bit as a motivational speaker (impossible = I M possible), Stephen Root plays her brother and Max Greenfield is the object of her obsession. Natasha Lyonne is severely under-utilized as a background character, my biggest gripe with the film.

We also finished the first season of Quantico. It has taken us a long time to get through it, what with kidney stones and trips to Japan and all. I have come to the conclusion that the big problem with network TV series is that there are too many episodes. This means they have to pad out plots and concoct too many fake cliffhangers and plot twists to keep things going for 22-23 weeks. I have the same issue with The Blacklist. I have become increasingly fond of the 8-12 episode series. Quantico is okay—we’ll probably dip into the second season—but the acting is spotty, and the series verges on being soap-opera-esque at times. The final reveal made sense, but this was after the suspicion had been shifted onto literally every other character at some point in the season, so we were a little bit red herringed out by the end.

We’re also watching the second season of Marco Polo on Netflix. The thing Kublai Khan does at the end of the second episode almost put us off continuing, but we decided to give it another episode and we’re back on track again. It’s a good replacement for Game of Thrones. Similar sorts of intrigues. I’m three episodes into my re-watch of Stranger Things, too, prepping for the conversational review Hank Wagner and I are doing for Dead Reckonings.

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How NECON cured my jet lag

Fifteen hours of sleep over a three-day period, on top of two cross-country flights will do it!

I got into Providence on Thursday afternoon after a couple of uneventful flights that took me through Charlotte. It was an early morning departure, so I got my sleep deprivation off to a good start. I can make the drive from PVD to NECON in my sleep, I’ve done it so often over the past dozen years or so. There was a pot-luck dinner at the convention hotel, a new development, so that was good. Spent the evening in the quad having great conversations with a number of people. I talk more over the NECON weekend than I do for the rest of the month.

One person I met was a fortuitous blast from the past. The first time I went to NECON was shortly after I had a story accepted to Borderlands 5. It was the Monteleones who mentioned the conference to me and suggested I might like to attend. A while after that, the anthology was sold to Time Warner for the paperback release. One weekend, while my wife was out of town, I went to the local pub, which is located right next to the interstate. I was sitting on the deck and the traffic noise was loud. My cell phone rang, which was a rare enough event at the time. Caller ID showed a NY area code. It was the editor from Time Warner, who really liked my story (“One of Those Weeks”) and wanted to talk to me about it. She also asked if I had a novel to show her. At the time I didn’t. The editor was at NECON and remembered the story. She asked again if I had a novel, and this time I do, so that’s  cool. Fingers crossed.

I was on one panel, wherein we discussed awards, what they’re good for, and some of the recent controversies surrounding them. I took part in the pub quiz, and while we didn’t win, we didn’t end up with zero points, either! It was a lot of fun. Then, for the first time, I was invited to take part in the roast. That set off a few alarm bells, because there’s generally a lot of subterfuge around the process, with reversals and twists, so I thought there was a small chance I might end up on the receiving end. I was part of the “rapid round,” where ten people who’d never taken part in a roast before got 15 seconds to hit the victim (Rio Youers) with their best shot. The risk, of course, was that someone would use your joke before your turn came up, but that didn’t happen.

The con was a good mix of veterans and newbies, and it was fully subscribed. I think that’s the first time that’s happened when I’ve been in attendance. Everyone seemed to have a grand old time–I know I did. I had to get up at crazy o’clock on Sunday morning to get my 8:00 flight (there aren’t many options that get me back from PVD other than very early morning or late evening), which got me home shortly after noon. Lack of sleep caught up with me a few hours later–I nodded off a few times while we were watching a movie, so I did something I rarely do: I took a nap. That helped greatly and I now feel like I’m completely over the jet lag that had been messing with my sleep since my return from Okinawa.

Time to get back to the regular routine.

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Stranger and stranger

I had the weekend to myself, so I watched a lot of Netflix.

First, I finished Season 1 of Bloodline, wherein all is revealed. Leave it to a cop to be able to set up the near-perfect frame-up job. “Near” being the operative word, which sets up Season 2: the cover-up and the repercussions.

Then I binged my way through the eight episodes of Stranger Things. I’m not a child of the eighties—the seventies was my formative decade—but I lived through the 80s, so I was familiar with all the allusions, from the Ford Pinto to Realistic electronics from Radio Shack to the music featured in the series. It’s a mash-up of just about everything you can imagine from that decade, and more. Off the top of my head, I found myself thinking of E.T., Close Encounters, It, Firestarter, Super 8, Carrie, The Goonies, Poltergeist, Altered States, Stand By Me, and so on.

The entire young cast could have been lifted en masse and dropped into the It remake. In fact, the guy who plays Mike (aka Turtle Face) will be Richie Tozier in the new film. My favorite character was Dustin, he of no front teeth. He was a real trip. I was thrilled to see Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. She was so incredible in Intruders (based on the Michael Marshall Smith novel), where she had to channel a 70-year old foul-mouthed man. She’s only 12, but she has serious acting chops.

Good to see Winona Ryder again, too. She has a difficult part, because for most of the eight hours she has to be in full-on hysteria. I found it interesting that you could tell her character knew how crazy she sounded at times to everyone else. I particularly enjoyed her scenes with Eleven later in the story, where she gets to be motherly and less hysterical. Matthew Modine’s evil scientist was the weakest part, I thought. He has no redeeming traits whatsoever. Monotone bad guy. But the rest of the cast and characters were stellar, and the story was terrific, too. I might watch it again before too much time passes.

I also watched the first two episodes of The Night Of on HBO. It’s a remake of a British series called Criminal Justice, and the focus is on the justice system. A guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time gets arrested for a crime he probably didn’t commit. The first episode is a case study in everything a person in that situation should not do. John Turturro plays a sketchy ambulance-chasing lawyer (originally it was supposed to be De Niro) who happens to be in the right place at the right time to insinuate himself into what he sees as a potentially lucrative case. The series is gritty and as realistic a portrayal of the system as I’ve ever seen on film. It doesn’t move along very fast, because nothing moves quickly. Thus far there are no bad guys. The lead detective, Box, is very good at his job and doesn’t mind testing the limits of a suspect’s rights, but he thinks he has his guy and he just wants to wrap up the package for the prosecutor. Interesting to see James Gandolfini’s names among the executive producers. I guess that’s something you can do from beyond the grave. It’s an eight-part series—I really look forward to seeing the rest, and might track down the original British series, too.

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