Comicpalooza 2016

This weekend, Comicpalooza comes to Houston. I’ve attended the past couple of years, but this is the first time I was invited to be part of the literary track. I have a panel on Friday at 2:30 (Horror Explorations in Literature) followed by a signing at the Barnes & Noble booth from 3:30 – 4:30. My second panel is on Sunday afternoon, also at 2:30, on Writing in the Thriller Genre.


I finished watching the final season of Banshee. If you’ve never seen it, I recommend it. It’s over-the-top, bigger than life, but full of terrific characters. It’s about Lucas Hood, an ex-con who comes to a small town in Pennsylvania looking for his old flame and the spoils of their lasts job. Through the most unlikely of circumstances, he ends up becoming the town’s sheriff, all the while pulling off heists and fielding off a variety of antagonists. His small gang consists of Sugar, the ex-boxer he met on his first day in town, Job, the flamboyant computer hacker and Carrie, the ex-lover, now married to the D.A. with two kids.

At the end of Season 3, Job had been taken prisoner by unknowns. Season 4 starts nearly two years later, with Hood living off the radar while he tries to figure out how to punish himself for some of his mistakes. The season also starts with a Who Killed Laura Palmer? -esque mystery featuring a prominent character from the previous three seasons. For a small town, Banshee attracts a lot of bad characters, including a former Amish man who runs most of the crime in town (and is now its mayor), along with his psychotic killing machine of a manservent, white supremacists, and the like. Plus, this season, satanists, cartel and a serial killer. The series is best known for its ultra-violent (and highly stylized) fight scenes and for its vivid sex scenes. This season continues in that regard, and it wouldn’t be a season of Banshee without at least one RPG or bazooka blast. Plus good use of a flame thrower. This season also introduced Eliza Dushku (who, as it happens, will be at Comicpalooza) as a crack-smoking FBI agent.

As series finales go, Banshee had a pretty good one. The serial killer plot was mostly wrapped up at the end of episode 7 (of 8), except not quite. There were several confrontations, both big and small, with guns and bombs and car crashes and ass-whoopings. Hood had an excellent near-death moment where he remembered just about every other time he’d almost been killed. Most things were wrapped up in nice little bows, most people got to say their goodbyes in one way or another. It’s nice when a show gets to plan its exit like that. Satisfying.

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A smashing success

I’d like to tell you all about my lithotripsy procedure. I’d like to, but I can’t. Because I don’t remember a moment of it. They stuck an IV in my arm and hooked me up to some of the same stuff that killed Michael Jackson and I was out like a boxer through the entire process. I came to some time later, wondering when they were going to get started. Apparently it all went off without a hitch. I didn’t even suffer any of the bruising or aches that was a possible side effect of having my kidney zapped with sonic blasts. At least, that’s what I assume they did. for all I know it was like the picture.

One amusing anecdote. After I had the IV in, the doctor came by and asked me if I’d passed the stone since I last saw him. “I have to ask the obvious question,” he said, because he’d had one case where the guy did pass the stone but showed up for his surgery and let them start an IV before proudly holding up the stone in a little vial.

We watched a couple of movies this weekend. First, it was Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ tribute to the golden age of cinema. It stars Josh Brolin as a studio fixer. The guy who gets actors and directors out of trouble when they fall off the wagon or get pregnant out of wedlock, stuff like that. He’s very good at his job. When mega-star Baird Whitlock (an amiably dim-witted George Clooney) is kidnapped, he goes about getting him back in a calm, professional manner. The movie has lots of little set pieces rather than an overall plot. There are a couple of song-and-dance routines, one featuring Scarlett Johansson and another with Channing Tatum straight out of Fred Astaire, sort of. There’s a cowboy star who’s thrust into a parlor picture directed by Ralph Fiennes that leads to a Pygmalion-esque scene where the director tries to get rid of the oater’s drawl. Tilda Swinton plays twin rival gossip columnists, sort like Ann Landers and Dear Abby. It’s all very amusing and has probably more inside jokes than we could catch. I was surprised at how well it reviewed…this is one of those films that the reviewers liked significantly better than the general public.

Then we watched Blackway (previously titled Go With Me) a straight-up thriller starring Anthony Hopkins, Julia Stiles and Ray Liotta. Stiles has come back to the small Pacific northwest town where she grew up after her mother died. She crosses paths with Liotta, a by-the-numbers bad dude, and he decides to stalk her. Kill her cat, all that kind of stuff. So she turns to the cops…no help there. She’s referred to a logging camp group (Hal Holbrook seems to be the head honcho) and Hopkins agrees to help her get Liotta off her back. I didn’t find that the film had a great deal of suspense, and very little by way of character dimension. I have no idea why Liotta was behaving like he did, or why Stiles’ character was so determined to stay in town, or even why Hopkins was willing to confront this bad dude, though I suspect it was supposed to be something to do with his daughter. I kept thinking of Stiles as Lumen from Dexter and wondering when she was going to run into the serial killer, because we all know where he ended up.

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Bring me my sonic screwdriver

I finished the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, and now I’m ready to move on to A Clash of Kings. Good stuff. I haven’t read any fantasy in a long time, although this is almost more Arthurian historical than fantasy. There are a few supernatural characters, but it’s mostly about the House of This versus the House of That, Kings and would-be Kings, etc. I have the first season on DVD to watch in a couple of weeks when I have some free time to binge watch. I’ll also be catching up on the current season of Orphan Black, then.

So, lithotripsy, a word which basically means “smash stones.” I have to have this non-invasive procedure on Friday because Petra, my pet rock, refuses to budge. It’s supposed to be fairly routine, with minimal discomfort, but there’s anesthesia involved, so no driving for 24 hours afterword. The procedure uses sound waves to turn the rock into sand, which will then pass more readily. Some possible discomfort from that process, but then it will be all done, I hope. They’ll need to analyze the fragments to see what they’re made from to see if I can modify my diet to prevent this from happening again. I’m all for that.

We’re in the midst of a rare patch of dry weather (my Facebook “blast from the past” notification yesterday reminded me that five years ago we were in the midst of a major drought) these days. The yard is almost completely dry for the first time in a couple of weeks. More rain in the forecast starting over the weekend, but nothing like what we’ve been through, I think.

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As Gandalf sez…

My review of End of Watch by Stephen King appears at Cemetery Dance Online today.

My kidney stone and I are remaining close pals. I’ve named her Petra. I wish she’d leave. For the most part, she is a cooperative visitor but every now and then (like for about eight hours yesterday), she raises an unholy ruckus. In the meantime, I’m drinking water like it’s going out of style.

We watched a few movies this weekend. First, we saw Rising Sun with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. I’ve seen it a couple of times before, but I always enjoy it, even if it is somewhat West-centric and a little dated. The tech is very dated, but so are the hairstyles.

Then we saw Tokyo Fiance, the tagline for which could be Amelie in Japan. In fact, the main character’s name is Amelie. She’s a Belgian woman who was born in Japan and lived there until she was five. Now she’s twenty and returning to Japan as a French teacher. One of her students (her only student, it seems) is a Japanese man of her age who is fou pour francais. As they explore Tokyo and its environs, she teaches him French and they fall in love. The ending was a little bit rushed, I thought, but it was a charming little film, good for an outsider’s view of modern Japan.

Then we watched Ali, starring Will Smith. It covers about a decade of the boxer’s life, from the early sixties until the Rumble in the Jungle, the boxing match with George Forman in Zaire that returned him to heavyweight champion after several years lost due to his political convictions and legal issues. I didn’t find the movie terribly coherent. It skipped along the surface of most events, and if you didn’t know the history, you might not be able to orient yourself to what was happening. It spends a lot of time with Malcolm X, but there is only a brief and confusing moment showing Martin Luther King’s assassination through the eyes of a secondary character. And while the other actors immersed themselves in their roles, I could never shake the notion that I was watching Will Smith. I tried to see Ali. I tried hard. Just couldn’t make it happen.

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I got a rock

I didn’t ask for a kidney stone for my birthday, but that’s what I got!

About a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in my abdomen. It tormented me for a while, then went away. I thought it was, perhaps, some sort of temporary obstruction or gas. It didn’t bother me again…

Until the day before yesterday. I was standing at my desk at work when the pain hit me again. Exactly the same, only worse. I figured, it passed before, it’ll pass again. So I walked around my office, and lay on the floor and sat. The pain came in waves. Never quite going away, but sometimes increasing in intensity. So, eventually, I called my wife to drive me to the ER.

The PA who triaged me said she would put in an order for pain medication. That was around 2 pm. It was nearly 5 pm by the time I got into a room and no one seemed particularly rushed to give me anything. All that time, the pain hadn’t relented. Worst I’ve ever experienced. They (even the female nurses) say that it is comparable to giving birth. I’ll never know for sure, but…ow.

Eventually I got a shot of morphine and all was well with the world again. I had a CT scan with iodine contrast and the doctor reported a moderate-sized kidney stone. I got prescriptions for medication to dilate the tubes and some pain medication and that was that. An 80% chance it would pass.

So far, it hasn’t. I’ve only had to use the pain meds once, thankfully, after a brief spell yesterday afternoon. I’ve been working at home these past two days and will probably do so again tomorrow. We’re getting more heavy rain, so it’s just as well not to be out on the streets when there’s no place for the runoff to go. I’m hoping this thing will decide to come out on its own, although I’m not exactly looking forward to the moment when it does. My father had several bouts of stones when I was a kid and I remember it as not being a happy time at all. Of course, the pain meds are probably a little better now.

We watched Our Brand is Crisis last night. It stars Sandra Bullock as a political consultant who has been off the grid for half a dozen years after some erratic and questionable behavior. Ann Dowd enlists her for the presidential campaign in Bolivia, where their candidate (who looks a LOT like Geoffrey Rush) is 28% behind in the polls. Billy Bob Thornton is working for one of the opposition candidates, the frontrunner. He and Bullock have history.

Through a series of savvy and shady maneuvers, Bullock turns the campaign into a tight race. It’s based on the real campaign that was managed by James Carville’s firm back in 2002, one that had a less than stellar outcome. Bullock is terrific in this film, and her badinage with Thorton is a lot of fun to watch. While it’s appropriate to the material, I can’t help but think the film’s title was something of a deterrent. It has lousy review scores and only made back about 1/4 of its costs during its theatrical run, so I guess it gets branded a flop, but we enjoyed it.

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Winter Isn’t Coming

The day after I was stranded in downtown Houston because of flooding rains, we got walloped by a second rainstorm of equal intensity on Friday afternoon. All the secondary roads leading south (toward Houston) from our community were under water by the end of the afternoon, as well as many feeder roads and exits off the interstate. (Click here to see some impressive drone video of these major roads.)

The picture to the right shows the Brazos River in Fort Bend Country (southeast of where I live and work). That area might not have received much rain, but it’s downstream from the places that did, so the water ran into the rivers and eventually crested and ran over the banks. A number of communities west of Houston were evacuated. People who didn’t leave are now trapped in their homes for the time being.

And it’s supposed to rain again for the next few days after today. With the ground so soggy already, there’s no place for the water to go. Fortunately, the community where I live has excellent drainage. When I went home on Friday, the ditches were raging torrents. Our front lawn was covered in water and the yard decorations were floating in the back yard, but by the next day the water was all gone and none of it got anywhere it shouldn’t.

I posted my review of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub at Onyx Reviews today. Now I am embarking on a journey to Westeros. Until now, the only thing I’ve read of the Game of Thrones material was the “The Hedge Knight” novella from Legends, and I’ve still seen none of the TV series. My plan is to read a novel and then watch the corresponding season. I assume that will work, right? I do know what most of the actors who play the parts look like from the frequent discussions of the series over the years, so that helps, in a way.

I thought it would be heavy going, but I read more than a third of the first book yesterday. There are a lot of characters to keep track of but, man, what an imagination. This is an amazingly developed world with an intricate history. Looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

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The Tide Is High

My latest entry in Stephen King Revisited is now available. Titled The Two Princes, it deals with the publication history of The Eyes of the Dragon. While some may think we jumped ahead in our chronological sequence, the book was published in limited edition a few years before the more familiar trade edition, so that’s why it appears where it does.

Yesterday was interesting. Two bookstores and a bar within shouting distance of each other sponsored a block party to celebrate the publication of The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, the final book in his Passage trilogy. (Cronin lives in Houston and a lot of the action takes place in Texas, so these books have been a big deal ’round here. My review can be found here.) Cronin appeared first at Brazos Bookstore, where he read for about fifteen minutes and then did a fifteen minute Q&A before migrating up the street like the Pied Piper, luring fans along with promise of a steamier passage at his second reading at Murder By the Book. Following the second reading and Q&A, everyone gathered across the street at Under the Volcano for the signing event.

I don’t go into Houston very often, and when I do, it’s almost always for a book signing. Early yesterday afternoon, the weather alerts started. Bryan/College Station got walloped by a tornado. The storm was migrating south towards us, so I got an early start and could see the dark clouds in my rearview mirror most of the way into town. In the city itself, the weather was fine. The skies were dark and ominous, but there was little more than the odd sprinkle of rain. I had an umbrella, but I never had to use it.

North of I-10, though, the situation was much different. Brenham, about 60 miles from where I live, received 14-16″ of rain in a very short span of time (their previous one-day record for rain was 6″). The community where I live got 6-8″ and there were reports of inundated roads (mostly feeder roads and intersections at the interstate). The local Emergency Management System admonished people to stay off the roads, especially after dark when it would be impossible to judge how deep the water might be in some places.

So, after getting my book signed (Cronin always makes fun of how much I appear in his Twitter feed), I consulted with my wife, who was at home. It wasn’t raining cats and dogs—it was raining horses and cows. So I decided to hole up in a motel for the night rather than risk the 50 mile drive into uncertain terrain. If it hadn’t been dark, I might have been more adventurous, but I didn’t want to get stranded somewhere unfamiliar. It’s funny—in this world of information technology, I had a lot of info, but not the specific information I needed, which was whether I could make it home or not. Complicating matters slightly was the fact that I didn’t have a phone charger with me and I was already on the low side of 50%. So I found a place and checked in.

It wasn’t a restful night, what with phone calls from the Emergency Warning System every couple of hours throughout the night and the fact that the room above me was occupied by Godzilla, who stormed around like a lumbering elephant. I was up before 5 a.m., which is my normal waking time during the week, and I checked out the situation on the various news channels. Another wave of rain was passing through, this one involving Houston proper, and it was still dark, so I waited until that storm exited my path and it started to get light before setting out for home. It was an uneventful drive. No high water anywhere. But there are threats of more storms later today, so I figured I’d better get while the gettin’ was good, as we used to say.

But I got my book signed!

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Let’s do the Lindy Hop again…

I finished Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors this morning. It’s an amazing end to a remarkable trilogy that spans centuries, nay, millennia. There’s a lot of back story about Zero in this one, which at first seems like a huge digression until you realize that humanity was destroyed because of the actions of a star-crossed lover. Some brief and intense conflict scenes, and oh, what he does to Manhattan! I’ll be seeing him at Murder By the Book in a few days. Looking forward to hearing what he plans to do next.

We went to see Money Monster (which my mind insists is Monster Money) on Saturday. The plot is highly improbable (no way the cops would let a guy strapped with a bomb walk out into the open streets), but it is redeemed by fine performances by George Clooney and Julia Roberts, not to mention Jack O’Connell, who I’ve never heard of before. Clooney plays the host of a cable TV show where he makes wild predictions about the viability of stocks and companies. One of his featured “buys” went so far south it has penguins, and O’Connell bet the family fortune on it. So he’s a little miffed. He sneaks into the studio during live filming, armed with a gun and a bomb vest, which he makes Clooney’s character put on. It’s a little Network—he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. He doesn’t want his $60,000 back: he wants everyone who lost a total of $800 million to get an explanation for the trading glitch that caused the stock to tank. Curiously, the CEO (Dominic West) is nowhere to be found. So Clooney, with the aid of his research team, some Icelandic hackers, and his intrepid camera man, producer and director, set about to get to the bottom of things, all live, all under duress. Directed by Jodie Foster, it’s entertaining but doesn’t have the power to get you all fired up like The Big Short did. It also stars Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad as the police officer in charge of the hostage situation.

We also watched The Royal Night Out, starring 11.22.63‘s Sara Gadon as a young Princess Elizabeth, and Rupert Everett and Emily Watson King George and the woman who we’d come to know as “the Queen mother.” The story takes place on the night of V-E day. The war in Europe is over, and everyone in England is taking a moment to celebrate, even though the war continues elsewhere. Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret, beg to be allowed to go out amongst the populace, incognito, to join in the revelry but also to hear what the people think about the King’s speech and the monarchy in general. It is to be a tightly controlled excursion, but the two women manage to slip their handlers and have a number of experiences. It’s very loosely based on reality. Maybe 10%. The real night out was nothing near as exciting as what the movie portrays (Margaret was only 14 at the time, though she’s played older in this movie) but it’s a fun romp and Gadon is charming and radiant as the future Queen. Plus she gets to put the Lindy Hop skills she acquired filming 11.22.63 to use again.

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Deleting series

Since finishing my responsibilities for the Shirley Jackson Award, I’ve been back at the process I think of as “clearing the desk.” This involves making a list of everything that has an imminent deadline and knocking them off one at a time, preferably in chronological order.

The big one at the top of the list was a series of eight articles I agreed to write for Matt Cardin’s Horror Literature through History. I’ve participated in a couple of these before, and have always enjoyed the process, although there can be quite a bit of work involved. Typically I like to pick topics to cover where I am reasonably familiar with the material but haven’t necessarily written about them at length before. My biggest piece for this book is a 2000-word entry on Ray Bradbury, which for a while was kicking my butt. Bradbury is a huge topic, even when narrowing the focus to the more horror-oriented side of things. But I finally have a polished draft that I’m happy with and ready to send in to the editor. So I can cross that project off the list, pending editorial requests.

Next up, I’m going to put on my thinking cap to try to come up with stories for two forthcoming anthologies. Maybe I’ll try Bradbury’s concept. He wrote a story a week every week. First draft on Monday and revisions for the next few days (always on a typewriter in his case). On Saturday he sent the story off to a market, took a breather on Sunday and started again on Monday. He would create a list of nouns and then interrogate himself about why he had chosen those particular words and what they meant to him, hence the preponderance of story titles of the form THE NOUN, especially early in his career.

So, Castle came to an end. To my way of thinking, it wasn’t a series that needed a grand finale. Castle and Beckett could just keep on keepin’ on. The series finale was a patch-up job and the show deserved better. One more episode to tidy things up and send it on its way. It’s clear that they intended the shooting in Castle’s apartment to be the cliff-hanger, but once the powers-that-be decided that Beckett wasn’t going to survive, the wheels fell off. Sure, the show was named for Fillion’s character, but it wouldn’t have been the show it was without Stana Katic. I loved watching her, right from the very beginning. She’s the kind of actor who is totally present in the scene, all the time. Even when the focus is on a different character, you can see her reacting. She’s not upstaging—she’s just living in the scene. I always appreciated it. Plus I liked her clipped Canadian accent.

Anyhow, they shot this “and they lived happily ever after” clip that was only necessary because they couldn’t leave us with the Escape from the Planet of the Apes finale they’d written themselves into. It was okay, but oh-so-rushed, and we deserved better, after eight years. It always feels a little strange to delete a series like this from the DVR schedule. It’s so final.

It wasn’t a series finale for NCIS, but it was definitely a watershed moment for the series, with the departure of Michael Weatherly’s Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. It was a powerful episode (that featured the final departure of another character, off screen) that gave Weatherly the chance to show some serious chops, especially early in the episode when he’s all rage. Then along comes this little girl, and, my, what a cutie she was (actually she was twins). It will be interesting to see where they pick up next season. Whether there’ll be any additions to the cast. Apparently they’re going to get some mileage out of Joe Spano’s character’s injuries, which could be good.

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Fangs for the memories

My featured review of Joe Hill’s The Fireman went live at Cemetery Dance online this morning. The review will also appear in the Hill special double edition of the magazine, together with my interview with the author.

You know it’s been raining a lot when the egrets and cranes start looking for fish in the ditches in front of the house…and finding something! I’m not quite sure what the egret found so yummy last night, but it put up a fight. Perhaps a crawfish or a frog. We had pea-sized hail on Saturday afternoon, and it has rained significantly each of the past couple of days and will probably do so for the next few.

We watched a strange and intriguing movie on Saturday night called The Family Fang. It stars Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman (who also directed) as the children of a couple of performance artists (dad is played by Christopher Walken) who used them as kids in most of their public performances. They filmed the reactions of innocent bystanders to some outlandish behavior to capture the essence of life. Once Child A and Child B grew up and left home, the elder Fangs fell on hard times creatively, and they want to get the kids back in the game again. Child A (Kidman) is an actress who has a reputation for outlandish and unpredictable behavior and Child B (Bateman) had a successful novel and a less than successful sophomore book, and is currently blocked to the extent that he’s willing to go on assignment to cover a bunch of rednecks who like to shoot potato guns into cornfields.

The story takes a strange twist when the elder Fangs go missing. Their car is found at a rest stop in a region where a number of people have been murdered in recent years, and there’s blood in the car. Kidman is convinced this is another bit of performance art and doesn’t take it seriously whereas Bateman is somewhat convinced they may have been murdered because he prefers that to the possibility that their parents want them to think they’re dead. In the ensuing weeks, the siblings delve into their pasts and make some discoveries. I’d never heard of the film, but it’s quite good. Kidman is spectacular, as usual, Bateman is solid and a fine director, and Walken is, well, pretty much Walken.

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