The Dowager in the Van

I’m interviewed today at the Nerd Girl Power website. The piece is called Every Gunslinger Needs a Companion.

We saw The Lady in the Van this weekend. The obvious pun is that it’s a vehicle for Maggie Smith. It’s about an old woman who lives in a van that she parks on the street in a residential London neighborhood. She has a colorful past as a pianist, ambulance driver during the war and a nun, but now she’s haunted and tormented, as well as crotchety and foul, both of mouth and of bodily odor. She befriends (as much as that is possible) a writer named Alan Bennett, a man who struggles with his sexuality and with his relationship with his mother. He sees the lady as a model for his mother and decides to write about her. The interesting thing the movie does is to split him into two: there is the version of Alan who lives life and observes, and the version who writes about things, and they banter with each other. It’s a visually interesting way to show a person talking to himself. The story is mostly true (and one Bennett comments to the other in passing when they put something on the page that didn’t really happen), and Maggie Smith first portrayed the woman in the van in the stage version 15 years ago. She’s a hoot as this uncouth Dowager Countess. A real delight.

Watched a BBC series called London Spy, which stars Ben Whishaw from The Hour (and also from Suffragette) as a guy who gets romantically entangled with a man who has created something that no one wants publicized. There’s sex and murder and intrigue, all in a somewhat leisurely John Le Carré vein. It’s five episodes and features the likes of Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Gatiss, as well as a brief appearance by Clarke Peters (The Wire). Some of it is highly improbable, but it’s a compelling drama about families and secrets and the surveillance state.

Speaking of Suffragette, we finally saw that this weekend, too. It’s an interesting story, and I always like Carey Mulligan, but it plods a bit. Hard to believe the state of things just a hundred or so years ago, though. Not only couldn’t women vote in the UK, they didn’t have any ownership of their children.

I’m up to the “Mulder’s back” section of the eighth season of The X-files. I probably saw these episodes before, but I don’t have a very strong memory of them. Also saw the fourth episode of the new season, which was very good. I think someone got the wrong end of the stick last year when they saw the episode title “Home Again” and assumed that the show would be revisiting the “Home” plot. That wasn’t it at all. This was a monster-of-the-week episode, but also a very personal one for Scully. Very well done, I thought. People in Philly probably aren’t very happy by Mulder’s thoughts on their basketball team, though.

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He seemed prett-ty crazy

I posted an update at News from the Dead Zone yesterday, including the news that Josh Boone is planning to film King’s Revival this year, assuming he can get a studio on board.

I received my contributor copies of the second X-files anthology, The Truth is Out There, yesterday. One of the super cool things about this book is that the introduction was written by Dean Haglund, who played Langly, the long-haired member of The Lone Gunmen. There’s also an audio version available, which I look forward to listening to. It’s always interesting to hear someone else read your work.

I’ve been enjoying the new season of The X-files. The third episode was hilarious, with all these funny little set pieces and great supporting characters, including the stoners sniffing paint (who appeared in two early X-files episodes), the motel manager and the psychiatrist, who opined that the antipsychotics he’d prescribed for Guy Mann probably wouldn’t do much good because he was “pretty crazy.” I figured out who the killer was very early, but the banter was great and so was the were-twist.

I finished reading Joe Hill’s The Fireman yesterday morning. I had to tear through it fairly quickly (as quickly as you can tear through a 730-page book) to get my review in to Cemetery Dance for the next issue. This is easily Hill’s best novel to date, and I really want to go back and read it again at a more leisurely pace in a few months. My casual reading is going to be pretty sparse for a while as I have a ton of material to read for the Shirley Jackson Awards. The couriers and mail delivery people are probably cursing my name. Every day they bring more boxes of books, and they’re really starting to pile up. That’s in addition to the electronic books and stories. One intern, I presume, heard the instructions “send out five books to the judges” and took them literally, so I received five copies of one of the submissions, and so did the other judges. When this is all over, I’ll take a photograph of the stacks and stacks of books I’ve received. It’s crazy.

We only have one episode of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having left, the one in Hong Kong. Last night we watched the Barcelona episode. That’s one city I’ve always wanted to visit, and hearing it described as a cross between Paris and Florence only heightened that desire. One day.

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Still out there

Stephen King Revisited is back for 2016! My historical context essay about Cycle of the Werewolf (By the Light of the Silvery Moon) is now live.

Had to go online to watch the first episode of the new X-files because the football game ran long (and the post-game even longer), so my DVR only captured the first 30 minutes. I think that happened to a lot of people. A good start, laying the groundwork for what is to come in the next handful of episodes. It was a little talky, but I like what I saw and I have high hopes. I’m ⅓ of the way through season 7 in my long-term rewatch of the series, something I started when I had the chance to write a story for the second X-files anthology, which comes out in a month.

After watching Making of a Murderer, I heard about an earlier documentary called The Staircase, in which an Oscar-winning French filmmaker had complete access to the defendant and defense team in the Michael Peterson murder trial in Durham, NC over a decade ago. The victim was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. The prosecution insists she was beaten to death (despite a lack of blood spatter, minimal skull injuries and no weapon), whereas the defense maintained she fell (despite some rather inexplicable injuries). Peterson, a novelist, had written some scathing editorials about local politics that put him in political crosshairs. He had a large, loving, extended family, most of whom supported him (all but one step-daughter), but he comes off as a rather cold, dispassionate man. He didn’t testify, so the jury didn’t get to see him “in action,” which was probably just as well.

There was no implication that evidence was fabricated, as with the Avery case, but there was still some questionable forensics, and then it was discovered that a family friend had died under similar circumstances a number of years before, and the prosecution successfully got that introduced into the trial. That and the fact that Peterson was a bisexual who had hooked up with men while married. The assistant district attorney got a lot of mileage out of that. It’s definitely worth watching, especially since it appears there will be a retrial this year. One theory that has arisen over the years is that she was attacked by an owl. Twin Peaks anyone? I also saw a BBC program hosted by Ian Rankin about the documentary in which a number of British crimewriters (including PD James) discuss their fascination with this insight into the American trial system.

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One says she’s a friend of mine

On July 1, 1994, I was in Atlanta working at a scientific conference. I had driven the company van filled with gear, which was an adventure in its own right. When I got into Louisiana, I encountered torrential rain crossing the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, just about the most severe deluge I’d ever driven in. The bridge is 18 miles long and there’s nowhere to pull off, so the freeway traffic traveled at stupid speeds in tight formation and if anyone had made a mistake it would have been a huge accident. When I got to the other end, I pulled into a rest area, in part because my nerves were frazzled and in part because the van was making strange noises. Turns out both rear shocks had broken and were dangling. So I had to find somewhere to get it fixed and fast, because I had to get the equipment to Atlanta the following day. Fortunately it wasn’t as big a problem as I feared and I was on the way and into Mississippi before I stopped for the night.

For my return trip, I planned to stop somewhere along the way for the night—it’s almost 700 miles—but I was also meeting an electronic pen pal the next afternoon, so I decided to drive all the way through, getting home late that night after over 12 hours on the freeway.

I met my friend at the Hard Rock Cafe in Houston for supper before we went to Rice Stadium to see Melissa Etheridge open for The Eagles on their Hell Freezes Over tour. It was a great concert and a great day. I didn’t see my pen-pal friend again until early the following year, but things moved along quickly after that, and now we have been married for over 20 years. So I have a special place in my heart for The Eagles and was shocked when we saw that Glenn Frey had died. I’ve always been a fan, bought Hotel California when it was a new record, and I think I own all their albums. But they will forever be linked with the day that I met my future wife face to face for the first time.


We watched a couple of episodes of a Netflix series called I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. Phil is Phil Rosenthal, who was a writer on Everyone Loves Raymond. He travels around the world sampling the cuisine. The first episode is in Tokyo and the last one is in Los Angeles, and features a host of special guests, including Norman Lear, Martin Short, Paul Reiser and Allison. It’s fun, light entertainment, and reinforces my belief that Martin Short is one of the funniest humans alive.

I also binged on 11.22.63—all eight episodes of the forthcoming Hulu series, thanks to a web screener provided by Hulu. I’ll be writing previews and reviews in the near future, but I thought it was exceptionally well done. There are a lot of changes to the source material, but they still captured the essence and heart of the story.

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Ripped from the headlines

A number of years ago, there was a call from the MWA for a member anthology where the stories all had to feature lawyers. I’ve had fairly good luck with these books, so I decided to give it a go.

I did a lot of research, and I stumbled upon this trial in Wisconsin where a lot of the proceedings were available as audio files. I read up on the defendant and used his story as general inspiration for my tale. At the time I wrote “The Best Defense,” I don’t think a verdict had been rendered yet. Maybe it had. I can’t recall. My story didn’t depend on it, because in my story, very little happened in the court room. It focused primarily on the relationship between the defendant and his public defender. It had nothing to do with the real case at all: this was just the launching point for my fiction.

The story wasn’t accepted into the anthology (sad face), but sometime later I read about the Hofstra Law School/Mulholland Books Mystery Writing Competition, and my story fit the bill, so I entered it. Took third place out of over 130 submissions, much to my delight, because the judges were two lawyers and a law school graduate: author Alafair Burke (daughter of James Lee Burke), OJ Simpson prosecutor and author Marcia Clark, and thriller writer Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher. The second and first place winners were a trial lawyer and a law professor, so I thought I must have done a decent job with the legal angle.

So, I’ve been hearing a lot about this Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer and I finally had some spare time to watch the first episode or two. Imagine my surprise when I heard the name Steven Avery in the opening seconds. I know that name, I thought! This was the case that had been the inspiration for my story. I know a lot about this case…I thought. But I’m still only on episode two, so there may be a lot more to come out than what I got from simply researching the published accounts at the time.


I had a fairly good year reading. Here is my list of works finished, in order and including audiobooks:

  1. Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
  2. The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
  3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
  4. Archie in the Crosshairs by Robert Goldsborough
  5. Texas Vigilante by Bill Crider
  6. The Death House by Sarah Pinborough
  7. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (audio)
  8. Finders Keepers by Stephen King
  9. Niceville by Carsten Stroud
  10. Ireland by Frank Delaney
  11. Elimination by Ed Gorman
  12. Tales from the Lake, edited by Joe Mynhardt
  13. The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl
  14. Gray Mountain by John Grisham
  15. Tipperary by Frank Delaney
  16. Tin Men by Christopher Golden
  17. Perdido by Peter Straub
  18. The Last Drive and Other Stories by Rex Stout
  19. Brothers by Ed Gorman and Richard Chizmar
  20. Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
  21. The Complete Crime Stories by James M. Cain
  22. Dry Bones by Craig Johnson
  23. Pale Gray for Guilt by John D. MacDonald
  24. Charlie Martz and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard
  25. Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami
  26. Last Words by Michael Koryta
  27. Drunken Fireworks by Stephen King (audio)
  28. Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
  29. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
  30. The Murderer’s Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman
  31. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
  32. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D. MacDonald
  33. The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film edited by Danel Olson
  34. Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay
  35. Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? by Stephen Dobyns
  36. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
  37. Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald
  38. Dexter is Dead by Jeff Lindsay
  39. The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton
  40. Zer0es by Chuck Wendig
  41. The Tomb by F. Paul Wilson
  42. The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald
  43. Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea by Frank Delaney
  44. A Tan and Sandy Silence by John D. MacDonald
  45. Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (Audio)
  46. Dead Ringers by Christopher Golden
  47. Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin
  48. The Crossing by Michael Connelly
  49. The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
  50. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
  51. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
  52. The Log of the Snark by Charmian Kittredge London
  53. A Long December by Richard Chizmar
  54. Interior Darkness by Peter Straub
  55. The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
  56. The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald
  57. The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates
  58. Hap and Leonard by Joe R. Lansdale
  59. The Last Interview by Ernest Hemingway
  60. The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald
  61. The Opium-Eater by David Morrell
  62. Teaching the Dog to Read by Jonathan Carroll
  63. The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall
  64. The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald
  65. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
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Möbius Dick

I received my first copy of the Cemetery Dance limited edition of The Dark Tower Companion the other day, and it’s a beauty. I see that it is out of print from the publisher, which is a nice surprise.

Over the past several days, I read a book my daughter gave me for Christmas . It’s called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and it is a delight. It’s about a guy who lost his job to the economic downturn who takes a job at the strangest bookstore in San Francisco. It is three stories high, but all one floor, with tall ladders required to access the books on the upper levels. Very few customers, except a group of people who are “members” who come in at odd hours to exchange one volume from the upper levels for another. They’re trying to solve a puzzle related to a book from hundreds of years ago. The main character has a lot of spare time on his hands, so he uses his computer to solve the first part of the puzzle, which sets him on the way to the bigger goal. It’s a nerdy literary book, with a character who works for Google bringing in all the modern tech tools, an ancient order out of Umberto Eco, a love of literature and puzzles: it has it all. Great fun. The first book I’ve ever read where the climax is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

Didn’t stray very far from home over the past week since my last post. We didn’t even go out to see any other movies, since none appealed to us. We don’t generally watch live TV very often, but we found all sorts of things to entertain us while we visited. We watched the Adele concert and a couple of Christmas specials, plus an Austrian version of The Nutcracker.

A lot of older TV shows don’t stand the test of time all that well, but we stumbled upon The Andy Griffith Show and watched several of them. They’re obviously dated, but the show was pretty good, with only a minimum of bumbling and pratfalls and some decent storylines. The best of them have Opie reflecting something bone-headed Andy did.

On New Years Eve, rather than watching the increasingly insufferable countdown shows, we stumbled upon something called Drunk History on Comedy Central. Drunk comedians and actors recount interesting incidents from American history while other actors and comedians recreate the incidents and lip-sync the drunk person’s narrative. It’s as hilarious as it sounds, especially when the narrator loses the thread or stumbles over words and the re-enactors have to deal with it. I didn’t know most of the narrators, but one was the guy who played Badger on Breaking Bad and another was Jane Curtain’s daughter. Familiar faces popped up in the re-enactments, though, some of them surprising. It was the best way to ring in the new year, I swear.

We watched the twisty-curvy Christmas episode of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride. Once it was finished, I described it as a Möbius strip. Sherlock2100 goes into his mind palace to try to solve a 19th century crime. Sherlock1880 extrapolates forward to the 21st century, envisioning himself in that era as someone who might create a mind palace to come back to the 19th century to solve a crime. It’s enough to put your brain into a knot. There were a ton of touch-points to both the Conan Doyle works and to Sherlock itself, many of them tongue-in-cheek. It was all highly enjoyable while at the same time highly improbable. It seems to be the setup for what we’ll get in the next series in 2017. Did Moriarty kill himself to complete an impossible scheme? Will he be back as “the virus in the data”?

Last night, we watched the first episode of the final run of Downton Abbey. The course of true love never did run smooth, especially on this show. The best parts were the scenes where Mrs. Padmore is delegated to find out from Mr. Carson what he expects from Mrs. Hughes in their impending marriage. Mrs. Padmore is so embarrassed, she can’t even look in Carson’s direction. And, finally, the Bates/Anna plot is laid to rest, although Anna (a character I used to like more) can’t help but gainsay every good thing Bates claims about their future. It will be interesting to see how they wrap things up. Will the dowager survive the series? Will their be another wedding (or two or three) at the Abbey? Will the show end with everything being auctioned off?

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Cinderella builds a better mop

What an unusual Christmas week we had. It was so warm, we had to turn on the air conditioner for a couple of days. There were high temperatures in the eighties and overnight lows in the seventies.

We celebrated a day early, because of family travel reasons. Christmas Day evening we walked through the neighborhood to see all the lights. I think I like these new laser gun star projectors. Plug it in, point it at the house and shazam–lights everywhere. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a net of lights. Then I realized that there were even lights in the surrounding trees. It’s a cool effect.

The weather broke on Sunday, dropping thirty degrees during the daytime amid a heavy round of storms. Nothing near as bad as the tornadoes 200 miles to the north in Dallas, or the foot of snow at the panhandle, though. Now it’s back to “normal” winter weather, and the heat is on again. We were even able to run the fireplace last night.

We’ve seen a few movies over the past week or so. We all went to The Force Awakens last Wednesday, and had managed to avoid all spoilers so it was a thrilling experience. My first observation to my son-in-law and daughter was one that seems to have bothered a lot of people: the number of parallels between it and A New Hope. I didn’t mind them that much; it was just an observation. I really liked Rey. Two of her early scenes stood out. First was the one where she was being mugged for her droid. Finn starts moving toward her to help but sees she has things under control and just shrugs and leaves her to it. Then her insistence that he stop taking her hand. Fiercely independent. Even crusty old Han Solo liked her. I think I know who she’s supposed to be, or who we’re supposed to believe she is. Looking forward to the next installment.

Yesterday we saw Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Deniro and a host of others, including Bradley Cooper. It’s about a high school valedictorian whose life is derailed by her family and she spends years toiling in obscurity. She was always creative but stifled. It’s built on the base of the Cinderella fairy tale, with camera angles and characters drawn from Roald Dahl, including a mother who almost never gets out of bed. The mother watches soap operas all the time, and a fictional soap opera created for the movie stars all sorts of old soap opera stars, including Donna Mills and Susan Lucci. Joy’s home situation is dysfunctional to the max. Her ex-husband lives in the basement and, later, so does her father (DeNiro) after his latest break-up. She has two kids, a “wicked” half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) and a live-in grandmother, who’s the only one who supports her. She gets an idea for a revolutionary invention and meets up with Bradley Cooper, president of the new QVC shopping channel.

It’s a difficult movie at times, because the hits just keep on coming and every piece of news comes with an even worse follow-up. Finally, the audience’s patience is rewarded with some terrific scenes at the end. This is entirely Lawrence’s movie and I can only watch her in awe of her ability to internalize and externalize all this stuff, realizing that she’s four years younger than my daughter. I sincerely hope she manages to maintain an even keel in her personal life because she has greatness in her future. Heck, in her present.

Last night we watched the Doctor Who Christmas special, which was fun and entertaining. Lots of great gags with the head in a bag, and the Doctor getting to pretend to see the inside of the TARDIS for the first time. Then we watched Windtalkers from 2002, the Nicholas Cage movie about the Navajos who learned to communicate over open frequencies to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific. It was a mediocre film, but has some good supporting performances from Mark Ruffalo, Christian Slater and Noah Emerich (The Americans). Probably would have been better with someone with more acting chops than Cage in the lead role. Even Adam Beach looked good by comparison, and he’s a stiff actor at the best of times. Some good battle sequences, though.

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Without the Galaxy Trio

It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Eleven years after it was first published, The Road to the Dark Tower continues to sell, and twice a year I get an earnings statement from my agent. These now come with royalty checks, including the one I received yesterday, since the book earned out its advance a while back. I’m always interested in the ratio of physical copies to ebooks, which is about 25:1 over the lifespan of the book.

I hear that the first physical copies of the CD limited edition of The Dark Tower Companion have been seen in the wild. I haven’t received my copies yet, but I expect I will before long.

I sold another short story today. The anthology in which it will appear hasn’t been announced yet, so I can only “vague-book” about it, but it’s a story I first wrote for another themed anthology that didn’t make the cut. I only sent it out once or twice after that, but I like the tale a lot and I’m glad it’s going to make it into print in 2016.

Last night we watched Birdman, the Michael Keaton film. I’d seen it before, but only as an in-flight feature and with subtitles since I didn’t have earphones, so it was a little like seeing and hearing it for the first time. It’s equally impressive on second viewing. It’s a very strange film, with its long tracking shots that essentially make the movie one continuous timestream. Even the nights are shown, though in fast-forward/time-lapse. It makes me wonder what kind of drama goes on backstage (or behind the scenes) on any given theatrical production or movie set. As the actors are interacting, what else is going on in their heads.

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Green Shadows, White Whale

It was a soggy weekend. Mild, but it rained more or less non-stop. Since we aren’t caught up in the pre-holidays rush, we took it easy. Thought we’d stay in, but ended up going to our favorite pizza place for supper on Saturday. My wife asked me if there were any movies I wanted to see. There was one, and it started in fifteen minutes. Fortunately, we were only a block from the theater.

I was surprised to learn later that In the Heart of the Sea “flopped” during its opening weekend. It may not be Citizen Kane, but we enjoyed the heck out of it. I thought that some of the matte paintings that formed the background of Nantucket looked stage-y, but once the adventure got out onto the open ocean, everything worked. The whale, when it puts in its appearance, is convincing and terrifying, but there’s also the various survivor stories. We came away feeling like we got our money’s worth.

The movie is based on the real events that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick. It has as a framing device Melville calling upon one of the survivors of the Essex, an older man who was but fourteen at the time of the incident. The man is reluctant to speak about his experiences but his wife, some cash and some liquor all conspire to loosen his tongue and he reveals the darkest secrets of that long-ago misadventure. For some strange reason we’ve been watching and/or reading a lot of nautical adventures lately, so this one played into an ongoing theme.

This was the first time we experienced DBox, those theater chairs that rock you around to enhance the viewing experience. I wondered if we’d be tossed about like ships on the ocean, but the usage was mild and didn’t really contribute much. I don’t think I’d pay extra for it in the future.

We also watched a Netflix documentary called Chaos on the Bridge. It’s a 60-minute documentary written and directed by William Shatner that explores the problems Star Trek: The Next Generation had during the first couple of years of its run. Brian Keene mentioned it as a cautionary tale about the perils of writing for TV, and when you hear how many writers left the show or were fired in the first couple of years, you’ll see why. It was a power struggle among massive egos with vastly different visions of what the series should be about, and the show only got on its true course with new blood (including Michael Piller, father of Haven’s Shawn Piller) and a better vision in its third season. Nautical connection: Captain Horatio Hornblower—those were the books given to Patrick Stewart when he wanted to know more about his character.

Fargo ended on a solid note. The ties to season 1 crystallized, and the fates of the various characters resolved, though I still wonder if Peggy got her room with a view of San Francisco Bay’s pelicans. Some wag offered the opinion that Ted Danson’s character invented emojis, which is pretty funny. Was it better than Season 1? I never know how to resolve issues like that, but I think so. It felt more invested in humanity.

Lots of other shows coming to a close soon. The Affair—they’re sure trying hard to make us think that Noah was the hit-and-run driver. Why else all those visions on the road? Homeland—it’s up to Carrie to save Berlin next week. Haven—the two-hour series finale this week. The Returned—I wonder how much of this convoluted story they can clarify in one more episode. I want to at least know more about Victor/Louis. Where he comes from, what he is, really. Creepy, creepy kid. Survivor—I’ll have to work hard to avoid spoilers because I rarely see the show live. And we get a one-off Luther this week, too.

I read a short story collection by Joyce Carol Oates (The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror) and am in the midst of another by Joe R. Lansdale (Hap and Leonard). I also read Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview, which actually consists of two real interviews and a couple of interview attempts, all of which took place while Hemingway still lived in Cuba. It was interesting to compare some of the things Hemingway said between the two formal interviews. He definitely had pat answers that he delivered in certain contexts, and he was irascible and testy at times, impatient with stupid questions and totally unwilling to discuss writing in any detail. This is the second book in this series that I’ve read recently (the other was about Ray Bradbury, thus the call-out in this post’s title), and they’re well worth exploring. This one was only 90 pages and I was able to read it in an evening.

Here are some recent reviews, books that I read during our cruise: Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin, Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith, The Crossing by Michael Connelly, and Dead Wake by Erik  Larson.

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It’s all denouement

The Leftovers (HBO) begins where most speculative fiction ends. Once the characters in a horror novel defeat the Big Bad, the story wraps up quickly. You don’t often get to spend time with them to see the lasting impact of the experience.

The events of October 14 that are so integral to the story are long over before the show starts. What was behind the sudden departure of 2% of the planet’s population at that remarkable instant in time? The show will never answer that question, because that’s not what it’s about. The characters might seek the answer, but they won’t find it.

The big picture question of The Leftovers is: how do individuals and society respond in the face of something inexplicable. The departure isn’t apocalyptic. Society isn’t decimated and, for the most part, can continue to function as before. Most people know someone who departed, or know someone who knows someone. If you worked in a company with a hundred employees, a couple might have vanished, but business can continue, with a few adjustments. If you worked in a company with ten employees, maybe no one vanished that day.

Owing to the vagaries of randomness, though, there can be clusters. Nora Durst lost her husband and both of her children that day. She was in the kitchen making breakfast and they were at the table in the adjoining room. One minute they were there; the next, they weren’t. It’s easy to take the event personally when something like that happens.

Then there’s a place like Jardine, TX, the only town where absolutely no one vanished. Again, random chance can explain this apparent aberration, but the residents choose to see it as a sign that they’re special. People flock to the town to drink the water or see if there’s something about the town that can help protect them if the departure happens again. Residents keep doing the same thing they were doing on October 14, like superstitious athletes warding off bad luck.

A lot of people are concerned with identifying the commonality among the departed. The government sets up a questionnaire to look for trends. Did everyone who vanished have blood type B-, for example? The questionnaire is far-ranging, because no one has a clue. It probably wasn’t a Biblical rapture, because some of the people who vanished weren’t very nice, and some of those who remained behind are. One minister makes it his mission to demonstrate that fact. A lot of people are invested in lending some meaning to the incident. Others are equally determined to show that it had no meaning, and neither does life in general. People go crazy. They commit suicide. They abandon their families and join cults. Some of them realize the inefficacy of the cults and attempt to rejoin their families.

For most people, though, life goes on. Society continues to function. But everyone is a little bit less confident. The ground feels less solid, as if it might disappear from underfoot without warning. There’s no denying the departures. It’s not like vampires in a small town that are ultimately defeated. As the Season 2 opening credits demonstrate so well, there are a lot of gaps that can’t be filled or explained. It happened. Now people have to deal with it, each in his or her own way. It’s one of those moments everyone has a story about. Where were you when everyone vanished?

The show doesn’t exactly have a through-line. There’s no goal. No problem to be solved each season. It’s all about the characters. Many of the episodes are more-or-less stand-alones, although dependent upon our understanding of the featured characters. It’s a rich world peopled by characters of every type imaginable. The show allows viewers to come to conclusions and doesn’t spoon-feed every detail. What exactly was the first fifteen minutes of the first episode of Season 2 about? How did it relate to the rest of the show? You’re free to draw your own conclusions. There is no answer.

There are no answers.

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