What. Did We. Just See?

I did a Skype interview yesterday afternoon for the Ka-tet podcast. My interviewer was located in Australia, so it was Monday morning (quite early) for him. We talked for about 35-40 minutes about many Dark Tower topics. The podcast will be up within a week, I’m told.

This weekend, I worked on a batch of new essays for Stephen King Revisited. I’m up to Cujo, which gives me a bit of breathing room since The Stand (original) is the most recent one posted. I’ve been struck, while working on this project, by the difference between when a book was written and when it was released. For example, King started working on Cujo in 1977, before Night Shift was published. Doubleday books were in the publication queue when he moved to Viking. It’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance.

We went to see The Kingsman on Friday night. It was a very rainy evening. We managed to get from the restaurant to the multiplex between downpours, but we got soaked during our mad dash from the movie theater to the parking garage afterward. What an odd movie. I’m not sure whether it lampoons spy movies or pays tribute to them. The violence is orchestrated to the extent that it’s almost ballet or, in one case, disco dancing. The movie cues are hilarious: Pomp and Circumstance playing while peoples’ heads explode in puffs of color like fireworks. One part of the film is about a series of tests that recruits have to go through to try to qualify for one open position in the spy agency where all of the members are known by Arthurian nicknames. These are even more grueling than the ones Wesley Crusher had to go through to try to join Starfleet Academy. In parallel, The Kingsmen have to stop a lisping billionaire played by Samuel L. Jackson from decimating the world’s population to reduce global warming. My favorite character was Merlin (Mark Strong from Low Winter Sun and Zero Dark Thirty). Some of it was so over the top that my mouth gaped, and I had to laugh at other parts, but all in all it was fun. Mind-altering, but fun.

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Spring has sprung

There’s never any doubt around here when spring has officially arrived. All of a sudden everything is coated in yellow-green pollen. When I leave work in the afternoon, it streams up my windshield like tiny hailstones. I can see my tire tracks in the driveway, and my tires lay down green prints in the garage. For people with allergies, it hellacious. For everyone else, it’s just messy. We’ve already had a couple of days over 80°. The heavy rain we’re expecting over the next couple of days should wash some of the pollen away, but I have no doubt there will be more.

My short story “Groundwood” gets the audio treatment by Nelson W. Pyles at The Wicked Library today. This is the second time they’ve adapted one of my stories to audio. Check it out when you have a spare half hour or so. The story is set in the groundwood division of a paper mill, something with which I was very familiar back in the late 70s and early 80s. In those days, students could work in the mill during summer vacation and get the same wage as the regular employees, so it was a great way to earn money for university. Of course, the work was grueling at times, and groundwood was one of my least favorite places. We were generally on call. If a regular didn’t feel like showing up for work, he’d call in sick, and then one of us would get the phone call. Often it was the 12 – 8 overnight shift. I used to lie in bed, dreading the sound of the telephone until 11:30 or midnight had passed, especially on a Friday night. Even then, there was a chance that you’d get a call if a worker just didn’t show up. I’d have to put on my work clothes and drive the 10 miles to the mill. If you were called in late, the hoppers or magazines would be near empty so you had to work twice as hard to get caught up. If you got into the rhythm, you could fill them up and then take a 30 minute break, so a good shift was 45 minutes of hard labor, a 30 minute break, then another 45 minutes of work and so on throughout the shift. The magazines were one floor above the grinders, which used steam to soften the wood, so it was a hot, dank place. We usually found someplace else to be during the 30 minute break. One time, my coworker on our line climbed onto the roof and went to sleep. Didn’t come back. I had to find a foreman to take over, by which time the magazines were pretty much running on empty. Worst shift ever.

“Groundwood” is a zombie story that doesn’t have any zombies in it. Well, it does, but they aren’t lurching around.

I received my copy of the signed and numbered edition of 25 Years in the Word Mines by Graham Joyce yesterday. A somewhat poignant arrival. This version has a “chapbook” of extra stories—the slim hardcover companion volume is signed by Owen King (foreword), Kelly Braffet (afterword) and Graham’s daughter Ella. Both volumes fit snugly into a slipcase. I look forward to having the chance to read these stories.

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Second best

Saturday was an unexpectedly nice day. We had a 9 a.m. meeting at the town center and afterward decided to go see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at a matinee. The old folks are still denizens of this outsourced elder-care hotel in Jaipur, India and life goes on. The owner is getting married and is looking to expand, so he and Maggie Smith go to L.A. to get investors, which means an undercover agent is going to stay with them to evaluate the existing property. These are quaint films that probably grossly underplay what it must really be like to live in India, but charming all the same. The subplots were all pretty good, except for one that was rather silly. It’s always good to see Judi Densch and Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy chewing up the screen with a batch of other good actors, including Doctor Who’s Penelope Wilton and some Bollywood stars who put on some energetic and entertaining dance routines. Richard Gere is along for the ride this time, too. Afterward, it was nice enough to sit on the patio at our favorite local pub for a late lunch. I think the pub was taken by surprise by the weather, though, because they were severely understaffed. We didn’t mind waiting for our food and drinks, but several groups either left or complained about the slow service.

A new review for The Dark Tower Companion went up late last week, along with an interview I did with the reviewer. I seem to be on a run of interviews. I did one for an Italian site last week, this one and then next weekend I’m doing a podcast with a guy from Australia. It’ll be 5 a.m. where he is, so that should be interesting! I’m trying to get ahead on a batch of essays for Stephen King Revisited so I can go back and take another run through my novella to see how it looks after a couple of weeks distance. I also have a CD column due at the end of the month, together with a review for a book that I’m hoping to receive this week. Never a dull moment.

I don’t take on new TV series readily these days, but I thought I’d give American Crime a shot. Good cast tempted me. However, I quit partway through the second episode. I didn’t like any of the characters. I generally like Felicity Huffman, but her character is abhorrent. She’s supposed to be, but that didn’t make her any easier to take. And Timothy Hutton’s character, who I guess is supposed to be the audience avatar, is simply dreary.

Battle Creek, on the other hand, is continuing to entertain me. It’s a less serious crime show than many that I watch, and I fear that it’s destined to be cancelled before long, but I’m enjoying the ride.

I’ve been hanging in with The Walking Dead, but I only watch with one eye while I’m doing other things. I’m not even sure I know the name of the character who died this week, but boy was that ever gruesome. It’s almost like they’re trying to outdo themselves with the gore. My prediction is that the young woman exhibiting PTSD symptoms is going to go Charles Whitman next week, which is going to give “our guys” the excuse they need to take over Alexandria. It’s clear they want to, but they can’t just go ahead and do it without looking like villains.

It’s interesting to see how the stress of the race for $1 million is starting to get to some of the “blind date” couples on The Amazing Race. The gloves are starting to come off and they’re sniping at each other. There’s one woman in particular who is nagging her partner’s ears off. “I don’t want to rehash the problems we had yesterday, but…” I’ve always wanted to write a short story that takes place during a reality show. I’d been favoring Big Brother as the template, but I think it would be cool if one of the teammates murdered the other one while on “a race around the world.” Just totally lost it and pushed the other person off a bridge or a cliff or a tall building. But that’s just me…

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St. Me

My interview with Maurizio Ragusa went live at Stephen King Only yesterday. The interview is also available in Italian. I speak it amazingly well.

I posted my review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, and I submitted a longer piece that attacks the book from a different angle to Dead Reckonings. Even though we’ve corresponded off and on over the years, since about 2000 I think, I’ve never had the chance to meet him. I thought that would change when he was named Grandmaster of the World Horror Convention in New Orleans, but he was unable to attend. I had the chance to present him in absentia, though, which was nice. He’s coming to Murder by the Book in Houston later this month to promote The Fifth Heart, so I hope to get to meet him then.

I can’t help but wonder how much fun the kid plays Oscar in St. Vincent had with Bill Murray for all those weeks of filming. We watched it the other night—how could we not with that as a title? It’s about a single mother (Melissa McCarthy) who moves in next door to the neighborhood grumpy old man, Vincent, and has to rely on him to look after her 12-year-old son after school. The relationship gets off to a rocky start when her movers knock a big branch from a tree onto his car, but he’d already done a number on the vehicle the night before when he was drunk. Oscar is the epitome of politeness and he worms his way into the crusty old guy’s heart a bit at a time. It’s a feel good movie that flirts with schmaltz, but we liked it. I usually can’t stand McCarthy, but she is restrained in this film. The director must have had a firm hand, because he kept the actors from excesses. Naomi Watts if funny as hell as a pregnant Russian prostitute who has a soft spot for Murray’s character. We learn more about Vincent as the film goes on, casting him in a more sympathetic light. The finale is high saccharine, but, as I said, we enjoyed the adventure. Chris O’Dowd is amusing as the Oscar’s teacher at Catholic school. The closing credits are mystifying genius, featuring Murray singing along to Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” while he plays with a water hose and a dead plant.

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The Night People

This is how crazy it can be in Texas. At the moment it is flirting with 80°. When I get up for my writing session tomorrow it will be on the way to the predicted low of 25° and it won’t get above 35° until noon on Friday. Yikes.

Some books stick with me more than others. One that did is The Night People by Jack Finney, author of The Body Snatchers that was turned into a film or two. Though it sounds like it might be about vampires or something of that ilk, it’s actually about neighborhood acquaintances who decide to have some nighttime adventures. It starts with one guy who has the irresistible urge to lie down in the middle of a road that’s busy in the daytime but mostly idle at night. Things progress. The friends have a picnic on the sidewalk at a strip mall. A cop gets onto their case: he is offended by their shenanigans, even though no one or nothing is being harmed. Things accelerate. The stakes are raised. I remember finding it utterly charming at the time. A paean to non-conformity.

This book came to mind as I was reading Sarah Pinborough’s magnificent The Death House last weekend. I’d heard many kudos about the novel, but I knew absolutely nothing about what it was about, by design. I went into it blind, and I loved every second of it. It’s been a long time since a book brought tears to my eyes, and this one did twice. I’m working on a full review for Onyx, but in a nutshell it’s akin to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with shades of Lord of the Flies and maybe even a soupçon of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The narrator is a Night Person, roaming the eponymous house while everyone else is drugged asleep. But then he meets a kindred spirit, and the adventures begin. Charming, coming of age adventures under the shadow of a known, bleak future. I haven’t been getting much reading done this year, but I set aside Saturday and read the whole thing from cover to cover. It’s that good. It doesn’t come out in the US until the fall, but it’s available in the UK now.

I got Amazon Prime recently so I could watch Bosch (well worth the cost, by the way), so I’ve been browsing through the other available offerings, and I stumbled upon Oz, about which I’d heard good things. I’ve seen the first four episodes: I see it as a precursor to Orange is the New Black. More serious than OITNB most of the time, with a marvelously over-the-top narrator, the guy who played Michael on Lost. J.K. Simmons is a nasty piece of work as the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. I can’t believe I’ve never seen a second of this show before.

I received my contributor copies of Dead Reckonings #16 last night. Hank Wagner and I teamed up twice this time, once to talk about two books recommended by King (Christopher Golden’s Snowblind and Nick Cutter’s The Troop), and again to discuss the latest two King novels.

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A life is like a garden

As we get older, death becomes a more familiar companion. Certainly not a welcome one, but familiar all the same.

I didn’t come to Star Trek early in life, mostly because where I grew up we only had one television station and Star Trek wasn’t on it. There was no such thing as VHS back then, so if it wasn’t on the tube, it pretty much didn’t exist.

My first exposure to the show came in 1979 when I went to university. The TV lounge in our dorm had cable, and Star Trek ran every weekday at noon or thereabouts. We had lunch the moment the dining room opened at 11:30 and dashed up to our floor to watch the latest episode. I bought the James Blish novelizations and read them all. I went to see Gene Rodenberry when he came to the Student Union Building (a fact that I had forgotten until I recently stumbled across the ticket stub while sorting through old papers).  I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture on opening night.

Not long after I moved to Texas in the late 1980s, I heard about a Star Trek convention in downtown Houston, some 40 miles away. I considered myself a hardcore fan by that point. Then I stood in the registration line between two guys in costume who held an intense debate about what Spock had been up to between the first two movies. They had evidence. If their conversation had been written down, there would have been footnotes. I felt waaaay out of their league. I enjoyed the convention, though I was a bit miffed when I realized that most of the vendors there had no interest in Star Trek at all. They were just out to make a buck, selling photocopies of photocopies of scripts and badly produced fan fiction. I got to meet Jimmy Doohan and Marina Sirtis, so there’s that!

I was thrilled to see Leonard Nimoy as the villain of the week on Columbo, playing a doctor who killed a rival physician using dissolving stitches. And, all these years later, I’ve been following him on Twitter where, among other things of interest, he talked about his battle with COPD and how stupid it was of him to smoke.

He was taken to hospital last week after collapsing at home. His final tweet from a few days ago read, “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP”

Today, his grandson posted the following on his Twitter feed:

Hi all, as you all know, my Grandpa passed away this morning at 8:40 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was an extraordinary man, husband, grandfather, brother, actor, author-the list goes on- and friend. Thank you for the warm condolences. May you all LLAP. – Dani

P.s. I will be putting special shirts up on our site, SHOPLLAP.com , where all of the proceeds will go to the COPD Foundation. I hope to hear from you all.

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You get a rejection letter where you were thisclose to cracking the table of contents. You have to withdraw another story from a longstanding project because it was starting to circle the drain. These things are part of a writer’s life.

And then there’s the spontaneous email from a first reader who tells you he was tempted to call in sick to work that day because he wanted to stay home to finish reading your work. Or the random post that you stumble upon from a total stranger who says very nice things about a short story you published many moons ago. These things, too, are part of a writer’s life. A couple of the latter is worth far more than a barrel of the former.

Odd coincidences: Several days ago, I finished a work in which mysterious tunnels play a major role. Then I look at my favorite news site (CBC news, if you’re curious) and see a blazing headline about a mysterious tunnel of unknown origin and purpose. Cool, you think. But my tunnel is more mysterious.

I’m getting close to the end of Bosch, the 10-episode Amazon Prime series based on the novels of Michael Connelly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Los Angeles look so good on film. It almost looks like a nice place to live. Titus Welliver is good, although I have to keep reminding myself he’s Harry Bosch. I can’t articulate how I pictured Bosch over the years, but it wasn’t like him. The season is based mostly on the novels Echo Park and City of Bones, though some liberties are taken. Bosch’s ex-wife and FBI profiler Rachel Walling are blended together into a single character, for example. I’m enjoying it, but I wish there was an easy way to cast it to my TV. Watching on the iPad is okay, but just okay.

The second season of Broadchurch has wrapped up. Apparently it’s been renewed for a third. Nothing is neat and tidy in life, as the season demonstrates. I wish I hadn’t watched Gracepoint, because that canceled series polluted my memory of Broadchurch’s first season a bit and it took me a while to sort out who was who and what was what again. The season comingles two cases and involves the characters from season 1 along with some new additions. I enjoyed it.

Very close to the mid-point of Justified’s final season. The addition of Jeff Fahey to the cast is welcome. His Zachariah is a crusty old miner and Fahey throws everything into portraying him. He’s the only actor I’m aware of who can laugh “heh heh heh” and make it sound like a real thing. A couple of good lines. Ava saying, “Anyone but me just plain tired of the bullshit burdens of southern hospitality?” The prostitute saying, “You’d be amazed how many guys think that if they talk fast enough no one will realize they’ve got nothin to say,” which could be applied to a couple of the show’s characters. And Raylan telling Tim, “Wonderful things can happen when you sow seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.”

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Dissonant Harmonies

Seven or eight years ago, Brian Keene and I first bandied about the idea of collaborating on a project. Our motivation was a shared habit of listening to music while we write and writing about listening to music while we write. I once wrote an entire novel (unpublished) listening only to Supertramp albums.

Brian and I observed that, though our tastes were quite different in many ways, there was also an overlap region that includes groups like the Alan Parsons Project, Supertramp, Pink Floyd, Styx, Kansas, ELO, etc. We wondered what it would be like to write something to the other person’s music. At first we considered a short story collection, but ultimately the project converged into a pair of novellas, each in the 30-40,000 word range, that would be published together. Cemetery Dance liked the idea, so that’s where this thing will end up eventually.

But it took us a long time to get to this point. We’d raise the subject every now and then. I even made a subtle dig about it in a very short story I wrote a number of years ago. Finally, we got to the point where we established our ground rules about the playlists. I delivered a CD to Brian at NECON last year and he sent me a Spotify playlist shortly there after. Even so, it took us another six months to get to the point where we were ready to write. And we did. As of yesterday, we’re both done our first drafts. Still plenty of work ahead, so the book isn’t on anyone’s publication schedule, but we’re getting there.

To commemorate the event, Brian posted our combined playlist on his website in the form of a Spotify plugin. He had to take a few liberties, because not all of the songs I chose were available on Spotify, but it will give you an idea of what each of us listened to while these stories came together.

Brian says his story is “about soul-mates, unrequited love, and how sometimes doing the right thing means doing the wrong, all seen through the prism of the Labyrinth’s multiple realities and alternate universes).” Mine is about the brother who left and the one who stayed behind, a series of mysterious disappearances, and the mother of all blizzards that heralds the arrival of something most definitely wicked.

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I don’t know what to dream any more

I finished the first draft of my novella last weekend. It came in at just over 38,000 words. I also dictated the remaining section into Word, so now it’s all digitized. I made one quick pass through to fix up the artifacts from voice-to-speech. Now it’s time for a good hard edit before I pass it off to someone else to read while I catch up on other things that have been pushed to the side while I concentrated on this work. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, but now it’s up to other people to let me know if it’s any good. Fingers crossed.

One strange after-effect of finishing, though. Throughout the four weeks it took me to get from beginning to end, I thought about the story all the time, especially when I was going to sleep at night. I would work out the next day’s storyline as my mind drifted off. It was pretty amazing. But now that I’m done, I don’t know what to concentrate on when I’m going to sleep. I did manage to identify one plot hole the other night, but beside that, I’m sort of stymied. Guess I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to write next and set my subconscious mind to work on that.

I’ve been enjoying Better Call Saul, but my wife bailed after the second episode. She’s not a big fan of stories with despicable protagonists. I like all the little, subtle nods to Breaking Bad, and glad to see Mike getting something more to do than send Jimmy back to get his parking validated.

I also enjoyed a six-part series called Babylon that aired on Sundance. It was about a young American female media wonk who is hired by the commissioner of the London police force to handle public relations. It’s an odd show, part satire, part straight drama, but it has an interesting arc. No word yet whether there’ll be a second series. I don’t think it set the world on fire over here.

I’ve been limping along with The Walking Dead, but last week’s preachy, let’s pump the metaphors episode wasn’t encouraging. Tonight is the two-hour series finale of The Mentalist. Looks like there might be a wedding. Enjoying this final season of Justified, too, although this week’s entry was a little weaker, though a weak Justified is still a ton better than just about anything else. I’ve been trying to find time to watch the ten episodes of Bosch on Amazon Prime (Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly novels), but not yet. I watched the re-cut first episode and part of the second but then I got sidelined. That novella really did consume me for a month, but I liked how much I got written in that short period of time. All of it by hand.

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And he shall be called Frank

I’ve reached the 2/3 point of the novella and something odd happened. One of the two main characters, whose name was Jessie, suddenly insisted that his name was Frank. I have no idea how or why this happened. Now, I know that Jessie isn’t the traditional male spelling, but there are enough examples to support its use. However, half the time when I put the pen-tip to paper to have him do or say something, my first inclination was to write Frank. I can’t explain it. So, from this point forward, Frank it is. I’ve also finally come up with a name for my fictional town. Until now it was ____port, which, when I was dictating the text into Word became blank-port. I can now fill in the blank.

I have most of the rest of the story mapped out in my head, in broad strokes. I find it interesting that I had a target of 40,000 words and that seems to be exactly where I’m heading, more or less. The first round of editing is going to be a bitch, though—first comparing the text to the handwritten version to fix up all the incorrect speech-to-text translation, and then making sure it all holds together continuity-wise.

Justified is cooking with gas this season. There have been some shocking events, but it’s hard to top the one that happened last night. They’re bringing out all the old familiar faces, too. This week we had Dickie and Loretta, next week it will be Limehouse and Deputy Bob. The clamps are tightening on Ava each week, and Boyd seems oblivious to it all. Looks like she’s going walkabout next week. Gary Busey’s son was a guest star this week, and he left an impression. Or a divot.

Banshee is also blowing up the screen this season. Another regular bought the farm in dramatic fashion last weekend. You’d almost think it was the final season of that show, too, the way they’re cleaning house. I think it’s time for a new police station, though. Maybe one with thicker walls.

I’m enjoying the PBS series A Path Appears, which is based on the book by NYT reporter Nick Kristof’s book, co-written with his wife. The title comes from a Chinese proverb about how, if enough people decide to take a certain route through a field, eventually a path will appear there even if there was none before. The series focuses on some of the most oppressed people, both in the US and around the world, and how local initiatives are attempting to put things right. There are usually two or three stories in each 90-minute episode, and Kristof takes a celebrity activist along with him. Some of these have been very impressive. This week it was Mia Farrow going with him to Kenya. Jennifer Garner was very impressive with her interest in domestic violence issues in West Virginia, and Ashley Judd in Nashville regarding sex trafficking. It’s simultaneously depressing because of the subject matter and uplifting when you hear about local people digging deep to do something about an issue in their own town. The guy from Kenya this week was simply awesome. Completely self-educated but smart well beyond his years and resourceful, as well as determined and visionary.

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