Sunday, October 12, 2014

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry. Or Maybe You Would.

Once in a while, I'll find myself focusing on my most obvious flaws and think I should maybe work toward fixing them. You ever do that? I mean, consciously work toward making yourself a better person? Most of the time, I imagine, we do it instinctively, but on some occasions it becomes a more conscious thing.

Anger, that's my big one. I have a lot of rage boiling in my gut-- rage over horrible tragedies in the world, rage over stupid people making stupid decisions for the rest of us, rage over circumstances I have no control over. It simmers inside me for long periods of time, and then, without warning, erupts over and out of me and I find myself ranting and raging at a world that's not really listening. 

Folks who know me would probably tell you that I'm a pretty calm, easy-going guy and that it takes an awful lot to stress me out or get me worked up. That's because I tend to internalize my strongest emotions. Truth is, I'm a bit like Bruce Banner in The Avengers movie-- I'm ALWAYS angry. But the only time I really cut loose, emotionally, is on the page. More about that in a minute.

It doesn't help anything when I rage off the page and in the real world. In fact, the only discernible effect I've noticed is that it takes everything out of me and makes me feel awful. My anger seems to effect nothing and nobody except me-- and in a very negative way.

So. Time to reign that rage in and learn to calm the fuck down, right? Maybe.

One thing I've found that really helps when you're trying to be a better human being: thoroughly examine the ideals you love, pick them apart, throw away the ones that prove meaningless and focus hard on the few that remain. Write them down. Know them, live them.

I care about reason, compassion, kindness, and truth. Those are the four greatest things a human can aspire to, in my opinion. Not finding "happiness" (a selfish goal if ever there was one), but easing the universal burden somewhat. 

I have my own ideas about what each of those four things mean, but I won't bore you with that. You probably have your own definitions, and I'm sure they're fine the way they are.

Now, having said that--- none of this applies to my work as a writer. Reason flies right out the goddamn window. Compassion is nowhere to be seen. Kindness? Pffh. And truth, well... truth rarely exists.

You know what there's a lot of, though? Anger. Wild, raging, uncontrollable anger. I'd like to say it's therapeutic, but that might be bullshit. 

Regardless, I'm not sure if I could even write at all without the anger. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Camp on LSD

One Easter weekend, way back in 19-blahty-blah, me and my friend Jorgensen decided to drive up north and camp out in the woods. We brought a tent and some cans of Sterno and various food items, but more importantly we packed a gallon of vodka, three baggies of weed, and a few hits of LSD, just to make it memorable. Smoking pot on the way was a given, but about halfway there we decided to make it interesting and so broke out the acid early. We each took a tab and kept going.
I won’t bore you with the details of what being on acid is like. You’ve no doubt heard enough stories about that. But we’re driving along the freeway, getting fairly close to our destination in the wilds of northern Michigan, when it starts to snow. Hard. And it keeps snowing and snowing and snowing. By the time we arrived at the woods we’d set our minds to, it was a full-blown blizzard. On Easter weekend.
Well, naturally, there was no one else around. So after it stopped snowing Jorgensen set up the tent, I went walking by myself, trudging through snow up to my thighs. Whacked out of my skull on acid and weed, with a tumbler full of vodka and Seven-Up. I stumbled across a deer in a clearing, who looked at me for a full minute, judging me I felt certain, before leaping into the air and disappearing.
I kept walking, pretty much lost but not that worried about it, when I saw a face peeking at me from some brush. It was a man, with deer antlers on his head. I said, “Uh… hey,” and he vanished.
Saw him again a few minutes later, and that was when I realized that wasn’t quite normal.
I made my way back to the tent, where Jorgensen was smoking another joint and trying to get some soup heated up on one of the Sterno cans. I told him about the guy with antlers, and he of course dismissed it as a case of me being baked out of my skull. I shrugged, because he was probably right.
So we’re sitting there in front of our tent in the snow, trying to get the goddamn Sterno can to work, when a pick-up truck pulls up right in front of us and the guy driving honks his horn. We look up at him rather stupidly, and he rolls down his window, leans out and yells, “What the hell do you two think you’re doing?”
Jorgensen looks at me, and I say to the guy, “Uh… we’re camping, man.”
The driver says, “Camping?? What the… you dumb asses have pitched your tent right in the middle of the road!”
We look around us and notice that, yeah, it does seem to be a long, narrow clearing after all. Very quickly, we take down the tent, too stoned to be embarrassed, and hustle off to the side. The guy yells one last time, “Dumb asses!” before driving off.
We pitched the tent farther into the woods and I don’t remember anything else about that evening. We went to sleep.
When we woke, we were soaked to the bone and there was snow everywhere in the tent and we were freezing. We both decided to call the camping trip a wash. We packed up, both of us sneezing and shivering, got in the car, and drove away.
I saw the guy with antlers one more time as we left, peering at us intently as we drove off. I thought about mentioning it to Jorgensen, but decided it didn’t matter. I rolled up a joint and lit it and settled back for the long drive home. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Walking Dead and their weird Death Fetish

THE WALKING DEAD is a show that really benefits from binge viewing, a quick two or three day blast dedicated to just barreling through to the end. That's the way I've watched each season, and I'm pretty sure I would never have maintained interest in it if I'd watched an episode a week. Luckily for me, I don't have/want/need cable, so it's an entirely Netflix streaming experience for me.

I'm one of those infuriating WALKING DEAD viewers who bitches and moans about the show and yet anxiously awaits each new season. Sorry. I know I'm wrong to do that.

But the thing is, the show is so... frustrating sometimes. Uneven. The first season was amazing and fresh, but the beginning of the second just dragged on and on, even watching it over a couple of days. And the second half of the third season, same deal. The show has always seemed to have trouble finding its pace, figuring out where it wanted to go and how it wanted to get there. It's difficult to balance great character moments with scary action, and even the most die-hard WD fan will probably admit the show hasn't always been successful in that regard.

When the show is good, though, it is very good indeed. There are some characters who I've grown very emotionally invested in, whether I like it or not. And the moments of action usually pay off very well, even if they come sporadically.

I'm happy to say, though, that I was really pleased with season four. They seem to have finally found that balance between character and action they've been striving for. It was the most enjoyable season since the first.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers here, since I assume that most WD fans are already caught up. So if you're concerned about reveals, maybe you should stop reading. I don't know, it's up to you.

Season four succeeded for many noteworthy reasons-- one, as I said, the pacing was as close to perfect as they've been so far. In 16 episodes, a LOT happened. The survivors lost their sanctuary in the prison when the Governor returned. We got an excellent pay-off to wrap up the Gov's story (and those three flashback episodes dealing with his adventures post-Woodbury were terrific). As walkers descended on the prison, the survivors were forced to flee, and the tight-knit group were scattered, none knowing the fate of the others.

It was an inspired idea, separating the group. It gave the writers amble opportunity to focus on each of them and tell stories that highlighted each of their strengths and flaws. It also gave us a chance to get to know some of the newer characters.

One aspect that really works this season is the new diversity of our heroes-- for the first time, WD has several significant black characters: not just Michonne, but Tyreese, Sasha, and new addition Bob. Each of them has their own deal and their own focus, which is worth mentioning because, previously, we had only T-Dog... remember him? Maybe not, because in the first two and a half seasons T-Dog just sort of hung around and never did anything worth mentioning. He never got a back-story, was never the focus of anything. When he died, it didn't even feel like an important moment, did it?

Also: the female characters REALLY shined in season four. I mean, they were all terrific and the writers did an excellent job with them. Carole really came into her own as a strong but flawed human being, making insanely difficult decisions and living with the consequences. Maggie kicked ass. Michonne, of course, got fleshed out a bit more and opened up. Finally, Beth got serious screen-time and proved that she deserves to be listed in the opening credits. And new addition Tara, the sole survivor of the Governor's group, had value right away (also worth noting, Tara is, as far as I can remember, WD's first gay character, another stride forward in diversity). Remember when the show had, basically, two female leads and both of them were irritating as hell and seriously under-developed? Lori and Andrea never worked for me, because they both seemed like an immature boy's idea of what women would act like during the zombie plague.

Speaking of Lori and Andrea, that brings me to what I've always considered the biggest problem with WD, and how I think they've addressed it somewhat in season four.


Death has long been a gimmick on WALKING DEAD. A plot point designed to shock you, even if it isn't satisfying from a story point of view. It's a weird kind of death fetish, substituting actual drama for shock. Yes, I understand that, if a zombie plague really happened, people we love would die. I get that. But you know... this is a story. And in a story, you need to rely on something more than "Who's going to die this season??" The writers (influenced, I'm sure, by Robert Kirkman) have focused on that, to the detriment of good story-telling. For the writers, with a gleeful glimmer in their eyes, to tease viewers with POTENTIAL CHARACTER DEATHS!! all the time is just sloppy and lazy and a cheap way to keep people watching. In season three, so many main characters died that my reaction when all was said and done was a combination of depression and antipathy. I didn't care anymore, and I wound up distancing myself emotionally. Too often, a character death signified nothing except... well, another dead character.

Season four proves my point, I think. It's the best season since the first, and guess what? Only ONE major character dies. Just one (note that by "major character", I mean someone who has been on the show for two or more seasons). And his death was a shocker. It was emotionally devastating and signified a HUGE moment on the show and what happens  next. It didn't feel gratuitous. It felt like: nothing will ever be the same now. It pushed the story forward.

That's how you do a character death. You give it meaning. You don't make it yet another useless death that does nothing to advance the story.

One death, and the best season yet.

Finally, and in relation to that, I just want to say that if they kill off Glenn (which there have been some hints about upcoming in season five) I'll be done with the show. This isn't just a pissy comment-- I consider Glenn essential to the show's success. Rick is, of course, the head of the show, and by extension Carl; Darryl is a fan favorite, so killing him off would be idiotic, unless they wanted to lose HALF their viewers; but Glenn is the HEART of that show and always has been. He's the glue that holds everything together on an emotional level.

I just hope the show runners realize that.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Biography in Books

I didn’t read a lot when I was a little kid.
Scratch that—I didn’t read a lot of books. I read comics, that was what I did. I’ve mentioned in other posts how much comic books shaped my life, even as an adult, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that comics actually taught me how to read. My mom took full advantage of my bizarre obsession with dudes in tights and capes running around beating up bad guys by making sure I never ran out of comics to read (they were super-cheap in those days). And so, through them, I learned about story structure, conflict, character development (as miniscule as it was) and all those other things that go toward making a story work. 
At about ten years old, I began casting around for other heroic tales to put myself into, and that’s when actual books started playing a role. We started studying Greek mythology in school, and I fell in love, devouring Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton. I discovered the exciting and bloody tales of King Arthur via Mallory (no, I didn’t read Le Mort D’Arthur at ten years old, but rather an illustrated children’s version). Basically, these were like super-hero stories, except that the teacher didn’t seem to judge them as harshly. Perfect.
But my first actual adult reading occurred pretty much by accident: stumbling across this short story collection hidden away in the basement, something my mom had apparently forgotten. It was called HAUNTINGS. It had this gorgeously creepy cover by Edward Gorey, and stories by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, John Collier, and a bunch of others as well. The cover sparked my morbid little imagination, and I sat there in that dark basement and read three or four in a row and everything—I mean, everything—changed for me. It would never be the same again.

Heroics fell by the wayside for a while then, to be replaced by an overwhelming need to have the shit scared out of me.
Through my teens and even well into my twenties I was a horror nut, reading every horror novel I could find and becoming quite the little expert on the genre. I especially fell in love with Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories. This all coincided with the so-called “horror boom” of the eighties, so it worked out pretty well. 
Not to say that I never read anything but scary shit. There were books we read in school that I actually quite liked. The usual stuff, you know: Lord of the Flies (which is still one of my favorites), Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild. 
I also got hold of some old Doc Savage re-prints then, great heroic stuff if not exactly brilliantly written. The Shadow followed (to a lesser extent), and Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan and Solomon Kane.
At fifteen or so, on a whim, I read a couple Mack Bolan Executioner books, by Don Pendleton, and absolutely lost my shit. Ultra-violent, non-stop action. The perfect thing for removing an awkward young man from a world he had no control over and giving him some "realistic" heroic fantasy to cling to. At that time in my life, I needed the well-crafted escapism that the Executioner books provided, and within two months I’d read every single book in the series up ‘til then (which was somewhere around fifty, I think).

Anyway… the finest (and occasionally trashiest) of horror, along with the bloody campaigns of Mack Bolan, sustained me throughout my teenage years. There was other stuff, granted, but that was what made up the bulk of my reading then.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my reading habits took a monumental turn and opened right up. Books and writers that I still read now, and that had an enormous influence on my own writing. 
I read Hammett, then, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
But it really started with Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson.
The Black Lizard re-prints of classic paperback original stuff from the 50's were just coming out then, and I can't really over-state what an impact they had on me. I've talked elsewhere about how Pop. 1280 changed things for me, and on the heels of that one I discovered Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Day Keene, etc. 
I started seeking out similar writers, stumbled across John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith. 
If I had to boil it down, the "noir" writers had the biggest impact of all. I still loved other genres (and still do), but those paperback original writers who slaved away in relative obscurity made a permanent mark on me like no one else.
In my early 30's I started developing a taste for Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and discovered that, tonally, they read very much like the noir writers.
For a while, I flirted with a lot of modern speculative fiction, and was particularly blown away by James Morrow, Tim Powers, and George Saunders (who, honestly, is some kind of genius).
All of this varied reading wound up informing the story and structure of my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, which, for good or ill, defies categorization. 
Lately, I've been reading a lot of Westerns. One more genre thrown in the mix, right?
The thrill of discovering new writers and new kinds of stories never gets old. With any luck, it will never stop happening. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hawthorne: Tales of a Weirder West free for Kindle

HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST is free on Amazon Kindle for the next five days or so. It contains:

An introduction by Western legend James Reasoner, and the stories:

That Damned Coyote Hill
The Long Black Train
The Spider Tribe
Bad Sanctuary


The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died

I won't lie, I'm rather proud of these stories.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Publication History

A few days ago, someone asked me when and where my first story was published. I couldn't remember. Isn't that nuts? I honestly could not tell her the year the story came out, and I had to think for a minute before I could even remember where it appeared. Crazy.

It was important to me, obviously, but damn. There is clearly something wrong with my brain.

So... I took some time yesterday to piece together my publication history, more for myself than anyone else. I've always been really horrible about keeping track of stuff like this. But there were enough resources on my hard drive and on line for me to work it out.

If you're interested, here it is. But like I say, this is mostly for me.

--“Battle of the Carson Hotel”, to WELL-TOLD TALES podcast. Made twenty bucks, and heard the story read by a really terrific voice talent named Andy Hoff. Later republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. I got lucky right out of the gate, but I wasn't able to sell another piece of fiction for almost two years after this. Well-Told Tales is gone, but you can still find the podcast on line.

--“How the Great Depression Gave America the Blues”, to HISTORY MAGAZINE. Non-fiction, but I’m including it because it was the first time I ever got a substantial amount of money for writing. I have found it plagarized by students in several places on line. Oh well. It actually made me consider giving up fiction writing and going entirely for essays and articles. That didn’t take.

--“Emancipation, with Teeth”, to NECROTIC TISSUE. A very good horror mag which I was proud to be in. They insisted on changing the ending. When I reprinted it in the story collection DIG TEN GRAVES, I re-instated my original ending. No disrespect to the mag, I just liked my way better.

--“It Will All Be Carried Away”, to CHIZINE (number 44). A real breakthrough for me, as Chizine is a very well-respected mag. The editor cited “Carried Away” as one of the best stories he ever read for publication, and it was nominated for a storySouth award. Go, me. Also republished in DIG TEN GRAVES.

--THE BASTARD HAND, my first novel, published by Jon Bassoff at NEW PULP PRESS.  Things sort of broke open for me that year because of it.

--“Blood Relations”, published in CRIME FACTORY #8. My first shot at a Western.

--“Nine Pale Men” and “Bones of the Conquerors”, the Grey Hawthorne adventures, published at THE NAUTILUS ENGINE. Grey Hawthorne was sort of the proto-type for the later character Hawthorne.

--“The World is Made of Candy”, “Greener”, and “Bleed Out” published at Jason Michel’s PULP METAL  over the course of the year. To this day I love working with Jason and I consider him a friend. “Bleed Out” was republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. "Greener" was later reprinted in Pulp Metal's anthology LAUGHING AT THE DEATH GRIN, which, sadly, is no longer available.

--Two chapters of a zombie serial called “Deadland USA” published as e-stories by a small press. Unfortunately, these chapters were a dead end and are no longer available.

--DIG TEN GRAVES, a self-published collection of short stories. Some had seen publication previously. About half were new to the collection.This is the only thing I've ever self-pubbed.

--“Miles to Little Ridge”, a novella published as an e-book by David Cranmer’s BEAT TO A PULP, and featuring his character Gideon Miles. My first contracted work and huge fun to write. 

--“Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a very nasty short story published in the anthology OFF THE RECORD.

--“No-Account Sonofabitch”, a very short story published at the great webzine SHOTGUN HONEY.

--“A Freeway on Earth”, published in the anthology BURNING BRIDGES.

--“My Life with the Butcher Girl”, published in the anthology PULP INK 2.

--“Baby Jebus’ Big Score”, published at PULP METAL.

--“That Damned Coyote Hill”, the first Hawthorne weird western, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Long Black Train”, the second Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Spider Tribe”, the third Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP. 

--FIGHT CARD: BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, a novella, under the name Jack Tunney. Published on Sept 1. This is part of the ongoing series of Fight Card novellas published by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom.  

--CITY OF HERETICS, my second full-length novel, published by Ron Earl Phillips and SNUBNOSE PRESS. It came out only days after the FIGHT CARD novella.

--“Bad Sanctuary”, the fourth Hawthorne, published by BEAT TO A PULP. All four Hawthorne e-books are unavailable now, as they've been collected in one volume.

--“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, published in the Lee Marvin-themed anthology LEE, from CRIME FACTORY PUBLICATIONS.

--“The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died”, a very short Hawthorne story, published at the webzine THE BIG ADIOS.

--“The Dead Hagedorns”, a flash fiction piece featuring Hawthorne, published in 5 BROKEN WINCHESTERS, from ZELMER PULP.

--HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST, collecting all the Hawthorne stories except “The Dead Hagedorns”, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“Five Bucks Buys Some Goddamn Vodka”, published in the crime fiction magazine/anthology NEEDLE, editor Steve Weddle.

--“Scarred Angel”, published in the anthology HOODS, HOT RODS & HELLCATS, from Chad Eagleton and CATHODE ANGEL PRESS.

--THE AXEMAN OF STORYVILLE, a novella about an older Gideon Miles in 1921 New Orleans, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

 --To be released: A Western novel that I can't say anything about yet.

--To be completed: A screenplay that I also can't say much about yet.

Doing this actually made me feel a little better about what I'm doing. Not a bad body of work for a few short years. With any luck, this is just the beginning. But you know how these things go... Thanks for reading.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Be Robert Mitchum

Of all the cool sonsofbitches ever to grace the flickering black and white landscape of a movie screen, none ever tilted the cool meter the way Robert Mitchum did. This is a fact. We watch a Mitchum movie and marvel at the nonchalance, the wry, cynical poise, the sheer wicked-coolness of his persona. His Kind of Woman, Out of the Past, Crossfire… even when he played a baddie, like in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter, he radiated the kind of laid-back charm that squares like you and me can only dream of.

But don’t feel bad. With a little practice, you too can Be Like Mitch—or at least come passingly close.

Here are three quick examples of Mitch-ness, and how you can emulate them:

In the early ‘50’s, Mitch was arrested for possession of marijuana. In those squeaky clean public image-obsessed days in Hollywood, a drug bust would’ve spelled the end of an acting career… but not so for our Mitch. There’s a great photo of him doing his time in prison, wearing the grays and pushing a mop around, that laconic smile still firmly in place. 

And of course America couldn’t stay mad at him after that photo. He apologized to the public for his “immoral behavior” but if the photo was any indication he didn’t feel particularly torn up about it. And to judge by the fact that his career didn’t lose even half a step afterwards America didn’t mind either.

So, Be Like Mitch lesson one: if you make a bad move and everyone finds out about it, so freaking what? Smile and shrug and get on with things.

Catch-phrases. Hollywood loves ‘em. Ah-nold had “I’ll be back”, Eastwood had “Make my day”. But the phrase most associated with Mitch, uttered with casual aplomb in His Kind of Woman, was much cooler: “Baby, I don’t care.”

Be Like Mitch lesson two, then: Don’t be overly-concerned with what the hell anyone else thinks. Let them all pose and poster and spout off in their self-involved ego trips. None of it has to touch you.

In his later years, Mitch did a movie with a young actor who told the story of how, on set one day, he witnessed Mitch going through his script and marking ninety percent of the pages with the initials N.A.R. The young actor asked him what N.A.R. meant. Mitch grinned and said, “It means No Acting Required, kid.”

And that’s Be Like Mitch lesson three: don’t waste energy or effort when you don’t need to. Banging your head against the wall and putting more into a project than it requires is for suckers. Mitch-types save their energy for things that are worthy of it.

So that’s it. Follow those three simple rules, keep that laconic half-smile on your face, and don’t let the posers and squares touch that inner, cool core of yours. Mitch never did, right? And the world would be much better if we would all just Be Like Mitch!