Glug, glug, glug

It’s been raining pretty regularly for the past two weeks around here, but nothing compared with the storm that blew through here on Monday evening. We went out for TCBY at 6:30 and half an hour after we got home, the storm arrived. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten so many calls from the Emergency Weather Service in one evening. It rained solidly until at least 11 pm, and off and on throughout the night. There was probably some hail mixed in, the thunder was loud enough to shake the house, and the lightening was almost constant.

Still, the place where we live is just a tad higher than the surroundings, so while we probably got 4 or 5″ of rain, the ditches handled most of it. The yard got soggy, but that happens during most downpours. We heard about flooding a few miles from us, closer to the interstate, where surface streets were impassable, but our streets were clear.

Still, nothing compared to what happened downtown, which was reminiscent of what happened with Tropical Storm Allison a dozen or more years ago. The ground was already saturated, so the bayous filled up and overflowed fast. People attending the Houston Rockets game at the Toyota Center were advised to stay put after the game ended, and many complied, including one of the Rockets players. Some people were still trying to get home at 7 am.

When we got up this morning, we started checking the media to find out about the situation. The first traffic maps we looked at showed a couple of accidents, but nothing serious. They lied! As we dug in deeper, we found out that many of the major roads were way underwater. I saw a picture that looked like a nice, sedate river well within its banks, only to read the caption and see that it was Highway 288, a major Houston artery that runs past the med center down to the gulf coast. There were abandoned cars all over the place, transports stranded in feet of water. Another picture showed water lapping at the undersides of an overpass under which there was normally 13 feet of clearance. Finally we found an accurate map that showed which roads were flooded. Darned near all of them downtown. Fortunately, neither of us had to go into town, so we can go about our business up here, where it’s relatively high and dry.

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The post has no title, just words and a tune

No drought issues in eastern Texas this year. I’ve been riding my bike to work lately—it’s a little over 2 miles each way, mostly on bike trails—but not this week. Every day on the 10-day forecast except for one has a 30-70% chance of rain, some of it heavy. We’ve been spared the brutal winds and tornadoes experienced by the northern part of the state, but I’m not biking in this weather. I rolled the dice and won on Friday: when I left the house in the morning it was sprinkling a little and I almost turned back, but I ploughed ahead and managed to not get wet. Ditto on my return trip. I figure anything more than that would be pressing my luck.

We went to see Woman in Gold on the weekend. The film stars Helen Mirren as a woman who escaped from Austria as WWII was about to begin, leaving behind her parents. The family’s apartment was plundered of all of its artwork, most prominent among which was a Klimt painting of her aunt that is adorned in gold foil (hence the title). In the late 1990s, she hires the son (Ryan Reynolds) of a friend to attempt restitution, even though everyone tells her the painting is Austria’s Mona Lisa and they’ll never get it back. Based on a true story. Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black plays the younger German-speaking version of Mirren’s character. An interesting exploration of Austria’s attitude toward the war. Jonathan Pryce has a bit part as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which is where the case ends up at one point. Beautiful Viennese scenery as an added bonus. I visited the city twice in the 1980s.

Last night I read Perdido, the novel fragment by Peter Straub published by Subterranean Press. I hope someday he finds the time to go back to this story. It has his trademarked unreliable narrator aspect, as well as a mysterious setting (and, only alluded to, two even more mysterious settings beyond). I’d love to see how the performance piece Murder Among Friends evolves.

This morning I started Tin Men by Christopher Golden. It’s a near-future military thriller with a fascinating premise. The US is now policing the world with soldiers who are tucked up safe and sound in pods in a bunker while wired up to virtually indestructible robots assigned to foreign lands. Unlike many military thrillers I’ve read (for example, Tom Clancy, who I eventually gave up in disgust), this isn’t a jingoistic story. The US isn’t pursuing world peace for altruistic reasons, but rather to further its own agenda. Any border crisis that threatens the US’s interests is immediately put down, even if the conflict might have shaken out naturally in the long run. It’s a fascinating and refreshing approach to the world stage.

We watched the first two episodes of Grace and Frankie last night. It’s a Netflix original starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin about two couples broken up by divorce when the husbands finally come out of the closet and announce their lifelong love for each other (Martin Sheen and Law & Order’s Sam Waterston). Alas, I think the series’ best moment was probably the last part of the first episode, where Tomlin’s character is on a vision quest and Fonda’s accidentally ingests some of her peyote beverage (worst-tasting iced-tea ever) and they stumble around on the beach while the visions play out. Hilarious and almost impossible to top. “Stop yelling,” Tomlin’s character says. “You’re upsetting the sand.” Otherwise it’s a bit tedious and boring. Not sure we’ll return to it.

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What’s “up”?

For the last four days, I’ve been proofing “Dead of Winter,” the novella that I’ll be publishing with a Brian Keene novella in a book to be called Dissonant Harmonies. I haven’t looked at the manuscript for several weeks, so I was able to approach it with fresh eyes, and I was quite pleased. I only found one real typo (a missing “the”), but I made quite a few minor changes and expanded a section that was unclear to my first reader. I also noticed one verbal tic: In a 40,000 word manuscript, there were 175 instances of the word “up.” Some of them are legitimate orientational and directional usages, but a lot of things “ended up” or “wound up.” A quick skim through the MS searching for ” up ” allowed me to remove at least twenty of them.

How did I end up here? It’s the sort of phrase Osvald Knop (pronounced with a hard K), the senior of my two doctoral advisors, would probably have stopped and scrutinized after he uttered it. What does “up” signify in this context? He was a polyglot born in what is now the Czech Republic who once worked in Linus Pauling’s lab. He was around sixty when I first encountered him in a third year undergraduate inorganic chemistry course. He had a strange halting and stammering manner of speaking, the result of a rumored lab incident many years before, that rendered him difficult to understand for many, but I was fascinated by what he had to say, so I listened. He was amazingly au courant about contemporary things, and was one of my few professors who confessed to watching prime time TV shows. When we learned symmetery, he used the letter R as the object that was rotated and inverted and mirrored because it lacks internal symmetery, but has a mirror image in the Russian alphabet: я, pronounced “ya.” For the longest time, I thought he was just pronouncing “r” backwards.

I was intrigued by an assignment we did where we had to solve the unit cell dimensions based on a printout of diffraction angles. That was my introduction to crystallography, in 1983. (When I talk to young people who are distraught by not knowing what they want to be when they grow up, I tell them that I didn’t even know the field of science that I ended up specializing in existed until I was 22.) When it came time to choose an Honours Project for my fourth year, I chose Knop because I liked him and remembered that assignment. That project led to my interest in the real world of X-ray crystallography, and I went on to do my PhD with him and another faculty member. I found out today that Ossie Knop died last week at the age of 93. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in many, many years, but choosing to work with him set me on a course that defined just about everything in my life that came after. I wouldn’t be in Texas if I hadn’t liked his class. Wouldn’t have met my wife of twenty years. Life’s funny that way.

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He’s still standing

I’m sure everyone has a similar story: the moment they really became aware of popular music as a kid. I grew up in a rural area, far away from record stores. The department stores, small as they were, had record bins, but it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff.

Remember K-Tel records? They were to music what Readers Digest Condensed Books are to literature. Songs were brutally trimmed of verses and choruses to cram as many as possible onto an LP. Often there were 10-12 songs on each side of the record. I had one that had “Rocket Man” on one side and “Crocodile Rock” on the other, so it must have been 1972-3. I didn’t know anything about Elton John at the time, but those two songs stood out. My brother told me that, yes, “Crocodile Rock” was a good song, but not ten or fifteen times in a row.

The first real LP I ever purchased was his first Greatest Hits album. I quickly became an Elton completist, saving up my money for shopping trips to Moncton, where there were record stores, scouring the bins for rarities like the Friends soundtrack (with its garish and hideous cover) and early albums like Empty Sky. I followed his career from that point onward, and was rarely disappointed, although his experiment into disco, “Victim of Love,” which my friends and I disparaged as “Victim of Disco,” was a low point. Living in eastern Canada, I never thought I’d ever get to see him in concert. I had no idea then that at some point in the future I would be living in the larger world.

Then, in 1984, I spent a couple of months in Oxford, England as part of my graduate studies. I found out soon after I arrived that Elton John would be the headliner at a day-long concert at Wemblay Stadium…the day after I was scheduled to return to Halifax. I immediately went to Heathrow to get my tickets changed (things were so much more complicated back then) and took the bus into London on the day tickets for the “Summer of ’84” concert went on sale. The day finally came, the last day of June, and I was crammed into Wemblay with 72,000 other fans from noon until 10 or 10:30 pm. Saw a bunch of great acts that day, including Nik Kershaw, Kool and the Gang, Big Country and Wang Chung, but Elton was definitely the highlight. He played for two-and-a-half hours solid. The concert was simulcast on BBC Radio, and a fellow I met in the lab at Oxford kindly taped it for me and sent it to me after I got back to Canada.

I’ve seen him a few times since then, including a previous concert at the Woodlands Pavilion, about three miles from my back yard, that was just him and his piano, with Ray Cooper providing percussion support.

My wife and I went to see him at the Pavilion last night. I was on the website the moment tickets went on sale and the best I could do was lawn seats, but that didn’t matter. It was a great, cool, clear evening, a near-full moon, and a sea of adoring fans. He came on without benefit of a warm-up band, only a few minutes past the scheduled starting time of 8:00 and he played until 10:30 without intermission. Started with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and continued with three more tracks from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” including “All the Young Girls Love Alice.” (Last year was the album’s 40th anniversary.)

The concert was heavy on the hits, but with a catalog like his, he can play for that long and still leave out a bunch of popular songs (He didn’t play “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” for example). He played three other songs I’ve never heard him do in concert before: “Holiday Inn,” “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll)” and “Hey Ahab,” the latter from his duet album with Leon Russell. That song and “Believe” are the only ones that dated from the past twenty years. Everything else was early catalog stuff, but no one minded. He ended with “Crocodile Rock” (see how it all comes full circle?) and the crowd happily supplied all of the falsetto la-la-las. His voice is a bit gruffer and he has changed around some of the melodies so he doesn’t have to try to hit some of the high notes, but he was still fantastic, and it’s amazing to watch those stubby little fingers do what they do to those ebonies and ivories. His arrangements, especially the extended piano interludes, have changed over the years, giving those old classics new life.

Good, too, to see that drummer Nigel Olson is still with him, dressed like a politician (according to my wife) and Davey Johnston is still making those guitars and mandolins howl. There was an additional keyboard player, a percussionist and a bass player. That six-man band made the place rock. Dude’s 68 years old, and he still seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself and those songs, and his longtime fans, of which I am one.

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Orienteering

I’ve been notified that the Cemetery Dance limited edition of The Dark Tower Companion has been sent to the printer and should ship to customers sometime in July. Furthermore, this is the last week to order and get free shipping within the US.

I went up to Brooklyn on Tuesday for the round-table discussion featuring Stephen & Owen King, and Peter & Emma Straub at St. Francis College. Any time I’ve gone to NY before, I’ve always taken a taxi from the airport, but this time, since I had plenty of spare time, I decided to give public transportation a go. I was very pleased by the results. I took the M60 train from the airport to the subway station, where I picked up the Q train that took me to within 0.2 miles of my hotel in Brooklyn, all for a mere $5.75. Then I took a few wrong turns and it took me almost another half hour to actually find my hotel, so there’s that. I had better luck on the return trip—it only took five minutes to get from the hotel to the Q station.

I met up with a few people who I know virtually from a Dark Tower message board before the event. Saw Peter and Susan Straub get accused of jumping the line when they went into the lecture hall! (I hear Emma Straub had a hard time getting into the building, too.) I sat with Nick Kaufmann and his wife and a friend of theirs, saw Gina & Jane Osnavich, and met up with Jordan Hahn, King’s webmaster, after the event for drinks. I’ll write more about the event itself at News from the Dead Zone either today or tomorrow, but it was fun. Video from the event should be available soon, but here are the official photographs. You can see me near the top right in #101.

On the return flight, I watched Birdman, which was an interesting experience. My flight had free WiFi for the entertainment system, so I watched it on my iPad. But I didn’t bring any earphones, so I watched it with closed-captioning. It’s an interesting film, with it’s long dolly tracking shots and occasional flights of fancy. Lindsay Duncan was great as the theater critic who resents Hollywood types breathing the lofty Broadway air. It’s dark and gloomy, intense, a little depressing, but worth seeing nonetheless. Great, great cast.

Quite impressed with the season finale of The Americans. The theme seemed to be the burden that constantly telling lies takes on a person. Philip—who seems to be having a crisis of “faith”—felt it, as did their daughter, Paige, whose actions at the end could throw everything into a spin, assuming Pastor Tim doesn’t just laugh her off. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech was the soundtrack of the episode’s closing moments, and the cold war just got a whole lot chillier.

And Grey’s Anatomy. Holy cow. I did not see that coming. Talk about a game changer.

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Left Justified

My latest essay, The Wheel of Fortune, is up at Stephen King Revisited. It puts The Dead Zone in its historical context.

I picked up a golf club yesterday for the first time in roughly 30 years. The only other time in my life I’ve “gone golfing,” I was a grad student at Dalhousie University. A group of us took a weekday afternoon off and went to a par 3 course near the airport. I was the only one who told my advisor what we were doing. All the others made up excuses. I discovered that I couldn’t tee off to save my life, but I was a pretty decent putter. My biggest problem was that I was forced to use right-handed clubs when my natural tendency is to swing left. We had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t inspired to take up the sport.

Yesterday, my daughter’s fiance and I went to a place called Top Golf. You rent a “booth,” which is sort of like a lane at a bowling alley. It’s a bit like a driving range, I guess, except it’s game-based. The one we picked made use of the half a dozen or so targets in the field that were divided up into rings and segments. You got more points for putting your drive into a ring closer to the flag, and for hitting a farther target. No points at all if you hit it really well, but missed all the targets. I got left-handed clubs, and found that all of a sudden I could hit the ball pretty well. I couldn’t bring myself to do a full swing by bringing the club back over my shoulder—I didn’t have that much confidence—but I could drive the ball 150 yards or so with a three-quarter swing. It was fun. Might try it again.

We watched a movie called 5 to 7 this weekend. It starred Anton Yelchin, who I first remember from Hearts in Atlantis and, more recently, as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot. He plays an aspiring writer living in Manhattan who nails his copious rejection letters to his wall and takes encouragement when an editor hand-writes “sorry” at the bottom of a rejection. He meets a French woman during a smoke break, and things take off from there. The title refers to a euphemism in France for an affair, because during those hours a wayward spouse’s whereabouts are generally less certain, but in this woman’s case she takes them literally. If the young writer wants to see her, it must be between those hours. Her husband has a mistress. It’s all very natural in their culture. The young writer even gets invited to the house to meet the rest of the family and the mistress. His parents are less accepting of the situation, especially his father (a delightful Frank Langella), though his mother (Glenn Close) is rocked on her heels a bit by it, too. It’s all very fanciful, but it treats both cultures respectfully. A fun, frilly film.

I’ve never seen a single episode of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica before last weekend. I watched the 3-hour miniseries and then went right into season 1. I can see a kinship with its contemporary, Firefly, especially in the way the cameras track when filming the spaceships from the outside. I’m liking it so far.

One of my favorite shows came to an end last week. It’s always a sad moment when I pull up the DVR menu and delete a show from the series recordings listing. I’ve been watching Justified since day 1 and I’ve always enjoyed its laconic dialog, fascinating characters and iconic feel. It’s a modern-day western mixed with crime fiction, populated by stupid criminals, that had a fantastic, morbid sense of humor. It was Elmore Leonard to the core, and even when it sagged a bit, it was better than anything else on the tube. I knew the end was coming and I dreaded it, but they pulled it off far better than I could have expected. Life doesn’t come to an end for the characters just because the show does. Lives go on, just in a different context. I applaud Graham Yost and Olyphant and Goggins and Carter for a terrific send-off to a fine, fine show.

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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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