Stoking the star-maker machinery

We saw a couple of interesting movies this weekend. First was a documentary called The Wrecking Crew that focused on a group of session musicians who worked on just about every famous album you can think of that was recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. The so-called “crew” wasn’t an official name and it was applied to a group of as many as 20 or 30 musicians. I was familiar with the concept of the session musician—Toto was formed from a group of them—but I had no idea how pervasive or influential they were. They were far better musicians than many of the acts they supported. They created riffs that their counterparts in the bands couldn’t duplicate. They invented some of the most famous bits of these songs. They appeared on albums by The Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Association, Jan & Dean, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Cher, Captain & Tennille, Nat King Cole, The Monkees, The Partridge Family, Elvis, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and so many more, including Glen Campbell (did you know he played on Elvis and Sinatra albums? Or that he toured with the Beach Boys?), who arose from among their ranks and became a performing musician in his own right. These were the go-to musicians when you needed someone reliable. Some record producers wouldn’t book studio time unless they knew certain of them would be available for the session. The documentary was written by the son of one of the best known, Tommy Tedesco. It’s not a big budget production, but we came away from it with a better understanding of and appreciation for the music of that era.

Then, on Saturday we went out to the cinema to see Danny Collins, a film I hadn’t even heard of before that day. It stars Al Pacino as a rock star musician who hasn’t written a new song in thirty years. He still packs in the audiences, but the crowd is getting noticeably older. He’s almost become a lounge lizard, trotting out the same old favorites. Think Barry Manilow. Then one day his manager (Christopher Plummer) tells him that John Lennon had read an interview he did 30 years ago and wrote him a letter, only the letter went to the magazine instead of to him, and it’s only just now come to light. It was a personal invitation by Lennon to call him up and talk about the perils of fame (this part of the story is based on a real event). This causes something of a personal crisis for Danny Collins. He sets up camp in a Hilton in NJ (managed by Annette Benning), starts writing songs again, and attempts to right some of his past wrongs. Bobby Cannivale and Jennifer Garner play a couple whose path crosses with his, and they have a delightful but frenetic little daughter. It’s a charming movie that upends expectations to a certain extent. The banter between Benning and Pacino is terrific (Benning is utterly charming), and Jennifer Garner’s compassion and honesty shine through, too. Plus Pacino seems to be having a blast. He embraces the aging rocker persona and plays it for all its worth.

I finished rewriting a short story and got it out the door this morning. It was originally written for a Canadian anthology where it wasn’t accepted, and the new market had certain geographic constraints that meant I had to relocate the setting. There was one specific detail of the original version that I thought was going to play havoc with the move, but it turned out that this detail was also associated with the new location, so I didn’t have to uproot it as much as I thought I would. And I was surprised by how delighted I was when I reread it for the first time in a few months. The last paragraph really made me grin. It’s a long-shot market, but I’ll have other places to send it if it doesn’t make the cut.

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Imitation

My interview on the Ka-tet podcast, Episode 41 is now live. This link takes you to the index page rather than straight to the MP3 playing page. It’s Dark Tower-oriented with an Australian accent. It contains spoilers, and it lasts for nearly three quarters of an hour.

I received my contributor copies of October Dreams 2 last night. What a beautiful volume. My story is called “The Boy in the White Sheet.” I look forward to reading all of the other contributions.

After watching The Imitation Game, I decided that Alan Turing, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a cross between Sherlock (as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Apparently it’s not quite an accurate representation of the man, and there’s a substantial controversy surrounding other inaccuracies in the film, but we enjoyed it. I especially liked the director’s response to the criticism. He said that this was art: you don’t look at Monet’s water lilies and expecting to see what water lilies really look like. It’s a representation of water lilies, just as this movie is a representation of Turing’s life as a code breaker. It’s not a documentary.

The first season of Better Call Saul finished up last night. The series doesn’t have the huge dramatic moments that Breaking Bad did, at least not very often, but it has some terrific character moments. That Bingo game from hell was almost a torment to watch as Jimmy worked though his hurt feelings and anger. Lots of “Easter eggs” from breaking bad, too, including the stories behind some of Saul’s anecdotes, like the time he pretended to be Kevin Costner. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it next season, but it seems to me it has a built-in expiration date: the day Walt hires him. Unless, that is, they decide to go off in parallel, because Saul had other things going on besides Walt.

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This is thriller

I received a very nice email late yesterday afternoon advising me that my short story “The Honey Trap,” published in the MWA anthology Ice Cold, edited by Raymond Benson and Jeffery Deaver, had been nominated for a Thriller Award from the International Thriller Writers. This came as quite a surprise, as I hadn’t even thought that it would be under consideration. Someone must have recommended it, or perhaps the editors or the MWA made the stories available for consideration. I was very pleased when the story made the cut for this anthology, so now I’m doubly thrilled by this accolade. I don’t know yet who the other nominees in the short story category are, but I imagine the competition will be stiff. The winner will be announced at Thillerfest in July.

The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, edited by Danel Olson, is now available for pre-order. And a bargain at only $25 for a 752-page volume. It contains essays (including one by me) and cast and crew interviews. In addition, there is a special gallery of alternate film poster art. There are many behind the scenes photographs as well, provided by crew members. An illuminating introduction from acclaimed Oscar-winning writer/director/producer Lee Unkrich ushers the discussion forward, asking why the snowbound story still means so much for pop culture, filmmakers, and us. The book is scheduled to ship in late May, approximately.

I turned in my column for Cemetery Dance issue 73 yesterday. I still have to write my review of Finders Keepers for that issue. I still have to do a blog post about it for King of the Year, but that’s not due until June, and something for Overlook Connection, by which time I should have said everything I have to about the book.

I thought the season finale of The Walking Dead was a little low-key. Oh, sure, lots of fights and struggles but what did it all come to? I found the scene between Elizabeth and the old woman on The Americans quite powerful last week, but couldn’t help but think that if she’d just stayed downstairs, all of that messiness could have been avoided.

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Things I learned from CSI: MoCo

My latest Stephen King Revisited essay went live today. It’s called “Only Death Can Keep You from the Finish Line,” and it’s about the history of The Long Walk.

I went down to Murder By the Book in Houston last night to meet Dan Simmons (photo) on the first leg of his The Fifth Heart tour. I’ve been corresponding with Dan for at least 15 years, but this is the first time we’ve ever met. I wrote the tribute to him for the souvenir book when he was Grand Master of the World Horror Convention in New Orleans, but alas he was not able to make that meeting. He talked for a while, then read a section from the novel and then answered questions. He’s currently working on a book called Omega Canyon that deals with the Manhattan Project and espionage and Richard Feynman.

Our local community has a lunchtime talk every month related to law enforcement and safety. I’ve gone a few times in the past. Today, the speaker was a local CSI, who explained the reality of the job versus what we see on TV. Most of it was common sense, but a few things surprised me. Luminol, used to detect the presence of blood, something CSIs squirt around on TV like air freshener, is a carcinogen, so they use it sparingly. (The luminol glow also fades within 30 seconds, so they have to act quickly when something is detected or else spray again.) Fingerprints sent to AFIS (or related services) generate a batch of hits that are then returned to the CSI for visual comparison. It’s not done automatically by the computer. Our sheriff’s department has the only dedicated crime scene reconstruction room in the country. The clay in the ground around here is so heavy that most people attempting to bury bodies give up after 6-12″ and just cover the corpse over with debris.

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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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