Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Religion and Politics Free-for-All

There was a time, I’ve been told, when people didn’t discuss religion or politics in polite circles. Propriety forbad it, because it led to uncomfortable situations and bad tempers and, frankly, resolved nothing, ever.

It STILL resolves nothing, but the guardedness we used to have about those subjects seems to have evaporated. I’m not saying that’s good or bad or indifferent, it’s just a fact. But the main stage it all plays out on seems to have become social media, and as it turns out, that particular stage is the most useless of all.

Every single day, without fail, you’ll find tons of posts on FB reflecting the poster’s political or spiritual beliefs, sometimes pretty aggressively. Just yesterday, I came across:

An atheist friend of mine posting a meme calling out religious faith as being childish and nonsensical.

A Christian friend of mine posting a dramatic montage of Jesus and some American soldiers, insisting that the Lord was protecting them.

A liberal I know bashing Newt Gingrich for being a hypocrite.

A right-winger I know posting a pic of Obama, calling him The Great Divider.

Oh, so many opinions. Which, as we know, are just like assholes… we all got ‘em.

Here’s the thing. I think I’ve had enough, thanks. Whether I agree with you or not, I’ve decided that I’m not interested in your opinion about these things anymore. If I agree with you, then you’re preaching to the choir. If I don’t agree with you, you’re just annoying me with your half-ass, ill-informed rants.

Now before you call me out as a hypocrite, I will concede that I have, on occasion, voiced my own political or religious views on FB. Guilty. But in my defense, I haven’t done it often. And over the last year or so, I’ve gotten better at censoring myself. Not out of fear that I’ll offend someone, but out of the realization that honestly, no one gives a shit about my opinion. And there’s no reason they should. I’ve never studied political science, so my insight into the subject is practically worthless. I don’t have a degree in theology or philosophy, so my theories about those things are irrelevant. Yes, you can be an informed citizen without those qualifications, but the people you’re spouting off to would have no way of knowing you’re anything other than a half-informed zealot picking and choosing whatever information best suits the positions you’re most comfortable with.

Also in my defense, there is a difference between religion/politics and causes. I don’t talk about religion much, but I DO occasionally spout off against anti-evolutionists. Some folks have mistakenly seen that as anti-religion. I will also occasionally speak out in support of the “Occupy” movement and protesters—and that is sometimes viewed as being a liberal position. I’m reconciled to the fact that those things will sometimes be misinterpreted. But it’s not the same thing.

If you’re a non-believer trying to convince believers that faith in the supernatural is idiotic, posting insulting memes on FB isn’t going to do the trick. Ditto if you’re a Christian trying to save the souls of us poor deluded atheists. Posting scandalous insults about commie pinko liberals serves no purpose other than pleasing the people who already agree with you for a minute, and ranting about America-hating right-wing dickheads is equally pointless.

None of this qualifies as conversation. It’s just grand-standing. Trying, trying, trying so hard to prove that you’re right and those who don’t agree are wrong.

If all of this eventually led to actual intelligent conversation, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by it. But it almost never goes that way.

I for one intend to refrain from spouting off about those things on FB from now on. I also intend to skim right over anything others post espousing a political or religious point of view, whether I agree with it or not.

I’m there to interact with friends, that’s all, and there's no reason FB has to be an annoying minefield of aggressive opinion-spouting.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good Decisions

So the first full day after temporarily abandoning the story that was giving me grief for two goddamn months made me very glad I made the decision.

If you care, the post about deciding to let a story go when it's not working is right here. I agonized over it, but finally decided that the second Hawthorne story just wasn't ready to come out of the metaphorical man-womb yet, and I had other things that were going cold in the meantime. I dropped Hawthorne, promising myself to get back to it later.

And yeah, it was a good call. Today I pumped out the first five pages of a new novella that will be done by the end of February, and it all came so easy and clean it reminded me of why I love to write-- a feeling I'd lost touch with the last two miserable unproductive months.
I also wrote a three page outline for another novella. Over all, an excellent day of work.

On those occasions when it comes easy, when it feels like the whole story was already right there in your skull just waiting for you to spill it out onto the page... that's a great feeling. It feels almost like you're tapping into some weird realm, some alternate dimension where the characters and situations already exist and it's all just too eager to allow you to pull it over to this side and give it life here.

So anyway, enough rambling and half-ass metaphorical imagery. I'm shutting it down for the day, but I'm actually EXCITED to get back to it tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sabotaged by My Own Story

One of the more annoying things that can happen to you as a writer is this: realizing that the thing you’ve been working on for two months is utter crap.

Yeah, it happens sometimes.

In the best circumstances, you’ll have an idea for a story and you’ll sit down to write it and everything just clicks and it comes out pretty damn good.

In the worst circumstances, you’ll have an idea but you just can’t get it to come together right. Very frustrating, that.

I’ve just spent almost two months trying to hammer out this particular story—the second Hawthorne adventure. And two months is a LONG time to write a short piece. It shouldn’t have taken more than a few days, tops. I kept going back to it every morning, trying to make it do what I needed it to do, but the characters just kept mulling around pointlessly, the prose absolutely refused to be anything other than listless and boring. And yet I kept at it, trying to revive what was becoming increasingly more apparent as a corpse.

You notice how I'm refraining from strong language right now? Refraining, because if I start cursing and spouting obscenities I'm likely to keep doing it all day.

It was a decent idea, one that I would be loath to toss away entirely. But my execution of it was just a giant fumble from the get-go. Maybe I over-thought it. Maybe the various elements clashed too much. Or maybe it just wasn’t ready to be born yet. I don’t know. Whatever the case, it was a total disaster.

Some writers (including me, I like to think) have a sort of built-in sensor that tells them when a story isn’t working. Sometimes you won’t even know why, exactly; you’ll just feel it. And once that intuition sets in, it’s almost as if the story is DELIBERATELY keeping you from moving forward. Like it knows better and is trying to sabotage you for your own good.

So what do you do when your intuition finally has enough of you fumbling around in the dark and comes to the surface long enough to tell you to put on the brakes?

Accept it, I guess.

Put it down, move on to something else. Maybe let the idea foment for a while and come back to it later.

So that’s what I’m doing with this particular story. I’m turning it loose, letting it get its shit together. Hopefully we’ll hook up later and work things out.

If you’re one of the four or five readers anxious for the next Hawthorne adventure, don’t worry, another one is on the horizon. Just not the one I’d originally intended.

In the meantime, I have some other projects I need to get to, projects that my frustrating struggle with an obstinate story had been holding up.

Writers: what do YOU do when a story stabs you in the back and refuses to cooperate?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dead Men, Compulsive Gamblers, Lousy P.I.s, and Corrupt Deputies

DEAD MAN: BLOOD MESA- James Reasoner
This is the fifth book in the very exciting Dead Man series created by Lee Goldberg. I’ve enjoyed the previous volumes, but this time out is a must-read due to the presence of writer’s writer James Reasoner. If Reasoner’s name is on the cover, I’ll read it; it’s just that simple. Blood Mesa finds our hero Matt Cahill (on a quest to find and destroy the evil Mr. Dark) in the middle of an archeological dig on a sinister mesa in Arizona. But the archeology students have no idea they’re about to uncover an ancient evil, tied mysteriously to Mr. Dark, that will bring out the corruption in their souls and force Matt to take extreme action to contain the situation. Reasoner really ratchets up the action in this novella—by the time you’re twenty or so pages in, things heat up and don’t cool down again until the staggering end.

THE GAMBLERS- Martin Stanley
Kandinsky is a hardcore gambling addict and loser who owes far more than he can repay to loan shark. He’s a guy who’s screwed from the get-go. But when he overhears a plan to rob a drug dealer, he convinces himself and his friends—who are even bigger losers than him—that they can pull off a miracle. THE GAMBLERS is a sprawling, complicated novel with lots of intriguing characters, a great sense of humor, and a beautifully constructed sense of impending doom. The large cast are all tied together in really clever ways that you wouldn’t suspect, and as each of their personal sagas play out, and wind closer together, you’re left slightly amazed that Stanley is able to pull it off. It’s a very well-structured novel, but Stanley’s real strength is the depth and believability of his characters.

TO THE DEVIL, MY REGARDS- Victor Gischler & Anthony Neil Smith
Two of the best crime fiction writers of this generation, Gischler and Smith deliver a solid, fast-paced novella that mostly lives up to everything you’d expect from such a pairing. Z.Z. DelPresto is a P.I. who is, frankly, not very good at his job—hired to keep tabs on a wealthy wife, he almost immediately falls into bed with the wife’s sexy but under-age daughter, and when the girl winds up murdered DelPresto is the prime suspect. In a mad scramble to clear his name and find the real killer, DelPresto gets the crap beat out of him a few times, almost accidentally uncovers deeper secrets, and generally explodes whatever expectations you might have about the P.I. hero. This is a re-release on Kindle of a novella Gischler and Smith wrote back in ’01, and you can see inklings of the things both writers would later use to greater effect—which is to say: as good as this novella is, both writers are far, far better now than they were then. Still, this is a very solid piece of work, with a breakneck pace, some real laugh-out-loud moments, and great characters.

YELLOW MEDICINE- Anthony Neil Smith
And speaking of Anthony Neil Smith… YELLOW MEDICINE is the first book in the story of self-destructive, corrupt-but-complex, loser-hero Deputy Billy Lafitte. After irrevocably messing up his life in Louisiana, Billy is now a cop in a back-water burg in Minnesota. In a short period of time, he’s managed to establish himself as King of the Hill, controlling the county’s criminal element by force, intimidation, and shady dealings. But it’s a precarious perch he’s on, and when sexy Drew (bass player in a psycho-billy band) needs his help pulling her boyfriend out of a bad situation, Billy’s position starts to crumble. His past begins to catch up to him, and next thing he knows, he’s caught up in an epic struggle against backwoods meth cookers, a government agent who wants desperately to bring him down, and… wait for it… Islamic terrorists. Billy is an absolute gem of a character, so real you want to punch him in the face with every crap decision he makes, and yet still hope against hope that he can somehow prevail as his situation gets steadily worse and worse. This is vintage Smith, right here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of the Bad-Ass

To a modern movie watcher, the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s seem like the nadir and the end, at the same time, of the cinematic bad-ass. The era of the tough-minded, ass-kicking protagonist in movies reached a high point, and then tapered off almost right away before almost disappearing entirely. I was born in 1966, and so was too young to understand the subtleties and charms of the movie bad-ass until much later. But I’ve often wondered why that sort of character fell out of favor.

I’m talking about actors like Lee Marvin, or James Coburn. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson. Guys who generally played quiet, intense men of action who faced whatever challenges arose with a sort of stoic directness. You know… the sort of men you secretly wish you could emulate. Their characters didn’t take any guff. They didn’t engage in pettiness or double-speak. Their directness of action overlaid what you couldn’t help but feel was a complicated interior.

They had precedents, actors like Robert Mitchum (in some films), or Bogart, or Gary Cooper. But against the backdrop of the Peace and Love movement of the ‘60’s, this new breed of tough, stoic characters emerged. Was it in direct response to the hippies? Certainly there’s an underlying conservatism in characters like Dirty Harry, or Bronson’s vigilante hero in Death Wish. But could it really be that simple? Many of them also appear to be a response to an encroaching distrust of authority—Steve McQueen in Tom Horn, for instance, is clearly playing a man rebelling against the gradual erosion of his liberties. And Lee Marvin in Point Blank is certainly not on the side of law and order.

I think it has less to do with politics and more to do with the fact that America (and the world) at the time was in the process of devaluing masculine qualities.

I have no bad feelings about the hippy movement of the time, nor do I dislike the surge toward feminism and equal rights that came with it. Those were all things the world needed, desperately. But I can’t help but think we threw the baby out with the bathwater. In our zeal to make amends to the people in our culture we had marginalized, we couldn’t help but dismiss anything that was thought of as purely masculine.

Although the cinematic bad-ass held on for a while in Blaxploitation movies (you don’t get much more bad-ass than Jim Brown in Slaughter or Richard Roundtree in Shaft), in mainstream culture the tough guy died a slow, ignoble death. Guys like Alan Alda in M*A*S*H became the standard-bearers. Women, maybe tired and bored with decades of tough, stoic (and non-communicative!) men grew infatuated with “sensitive” men.

When I was ten or twelve, an even newer type of male hero became the rage—the smirking, wise-cracking rogue. I and all my friends didn’t give a shit about the whiny and annoying Luke Skywalker; we all wanted to be Han Solo. The easy grin, the snappy comebacks, the charm with the ladies. Han Solo spawned Starbuck, on Battlestar Galactica, and Gil Gerard’s take on Buck Rogers. In cop shows, we had Jim Rockford filling that role. The only “old-school” tough guy I can remember at all from that era is Robert Blake as Baretta.

These were the only heroes, male role models, we had when I was growing up. Basically, female fantasies as much as male ones. Like Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, we were a generation of men raised by women… and we sort of lost something.

But I get a sense that popular culture is beginning to miss that stoic, tough-minded male protagonist. You can see a glimmer of it in the way Daniel Craig plays James Bond—a refreshing return to bad-ass form after decades of smirking, wise-cracking Bonds. Liam Neeson in Taken. And, most recently, Timothy Oliphant as Marshall Raylan Givens in Justified.

And it’s not really about being able to kick-ass and chew bubble-gum, by the way. It’s about characters who have such a sense of single-minded purpose that nothing can stop them. They are committed and stoic (there’s that word again) and willing to see it through to the end.
And that’s not such a bad quality to have, is it?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Accident People, Delusional Heroes, Bad-Ass Chevys & the Devil's Daughter

FUN & GAMES, Duane Swierczynski
Another high-octane actioner from the guy who brought us The Wheelman, Severance Package and The Blonde, among others. This one finds former cop “consultant” and high-end house sitter Charlie Hardie in a fight for his life against The Accident People—a shady crew with unlimited resources who set up tragic deaths. Along with a washed-up young actress, Charlie struggles to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. Basically, FUN & GAMES is one amazingly suspenseful set piece after another. The thrills just keep coming and the fights, escapes, and close calls are relentless. It’s the literary equivalent a big-budget action movie.

A brutal but funny MF of a novella from Charlie Williams, GRAVEN IMAGE seems designed to keep the reader always a little off-kilter. The protagonist, Leon, tears across the pages in a mad search for his daughter, and he won’t allow anything to stand in his way. The real strength of this story is the slowly creeping realization that there is something… wrong… with Leon and his perception of events. About three-fourths of the way through, you start to get some ideas about what’s really happening, but that doesn’t lessen the horrible blow that comes when Leon finally realizes it himself. A different tone from Charlie’s Mangel novels, but equally compelling.

RAISE A HOLLER, Jason Stuart
This mad-cap romp through the backwoods of Colleden County is an amazingly fun page-turner. Redneck teens Hank and Billy, on a half-ass quest to find a cache of hidden bootleg booze, wind up on a—really, there’s no other way to put it—journey of self-discovery, encountering a family of vile females looking for a baby-daddy, a gaggle of drugged-out hippies, an escape by hot-air balloon, corrupt law, an insane swamp man, a bad-ass Chevy and a pampered tiger among other things. It’s a nicely episodic novel, one that makes it impossible to guess what madness the boys will stumble into next.

The Devil’s Music: When You’re a Stranger, Julia Madeleine
Julia Madeleine’s latest story of Sadie, the Devil’s daughter, claims another rock icon into the 27 Club. It’s Paris, 1971, and Sadie has come to claim her mad poet Jim this time. But WHEN YOU’RE A STRANGER is not just a simple appreciation of Jim Morrison, because that would be too easy. It’s a heartfelt meditation on the nature of love, beauty and loss that somehow still manages to avoid being maudlin or sentimental.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


"His sharp gray eyes took in everything relevant in a split second—there were four men, two of them armed. One was leveling his gun at Hawthorne, aiming when he should have been firing already, and Hawthorne shot him in the neck.

The other one was just slapping leather, and as the first gunman fell back into a jail cell, Hawthorne swung the Schofield around in the gun smoke and put a bullet into his chest. The force of it slammed the second man back into a set of metal bars, but he didn’t drop his gun. Hawthorne gave him a second to realize he was dead, but when the realization didn’t come fast enough he gave him another bullet in the gut to put a finer point on it."

Coming soon from Trestle Press, HAWTHORNE: THE LONG BLACK TRAIN

Monday, January 9, 2012

DIG TEN GRAVES for .99 cents

I didn't have anything to do with MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE being free for a couple days-- that was all David Cranmer's doing. But I'm glad he did it. Apparently, there were almost 7,000 downloads of the story in those two days, which is insane-but-cool, and it affected sales of some of my other work a bit as well. It's back at .99 cents today, and has been holding on to the #5 spot in Westerns on Amazon. A happy experiment, I'd say.

DIG TEN GRAVES, which is normally 2.99, went on sale for 99 cents that same day. Sales have bumped, but nothing drastic. It'll be on sale until January 15, if you're interested...

Friday, January 6, 2012


From now until my birthday, January 15, my short story collection DIG TEN GRAVES will be on sale for .99 cents. So if you haven't picked it up yet, now's the time. I recently found out that the lead-off story, "It Will All Be Carried Away", was an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Horror Stories last year. I'd like to pump up some sales on it, so, you know... come on.

Also, and totally by coincidence, Mr. Edward A. Grainger has temporarily placed my Gideon Miles story MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE in Amazon's FREE DOWNLOADS. As we speak, it's the number one selling free Western download, with over 1,000 of those babies moved just in the last few hours. Saddle up, if you haven't already, or spread the word.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Books of the Week

I was lucky enough to end 2011 with two great reads, and to start 2012 with a couple more, equally good.

Just a couple days before the New Year, I got SOUTHERN GODS, by John Hornor Jacobs, in the mail. Dug right into it, as it was one I’d been looking forward to for a while. It did not disappoint. An inspired cross-pollinization of hard-boiled detective with creepy Lovecraftian horror, SOUTHERN GODS is pacey, structured beautifully, and just barrels along like mad toward a genuinely scary climax. There were several scenes in this book that actually creeped me right the hell out, which is a rare occurrence.

On the last day of the year, I dug into Andrew Bergin’s TOBACCO-STAINED MOUNTAIN GOAT, which was probably the oddest book I read all year. I had a few books in front of it on the TBR cue, but a terrific cover and an intriguing first page caused this one to jump the cue and become the last book of the year for me. Again, there’s some remarkable genre cross-over going on here, a sort of noir-ish flair rubbing up against a dystopian, Philip K. Dick bleakness. I was worried that Bergen, as a writer entirely new to me, wouldn’t be able to sustain the charm and solid writing in TSMG’s earliest pages, but I needn’t have worried. The man’s imagination is vivid and consistent, and his love of old films (woven so nicely throughout the story) will appeal to anyone who grew up watching Bogart flicks.

Went with a known quantity as my first book of ’12. Victor Gischler has never let me down, so I pulled up THE DEPUTY to ring in the new year. Gotta tell you, I think this is my favorite Gischler so far. The novel takes place over the course of one long, blood-soaked night as our young hero—a part-time deputy sheriff with no experience and no skills to speak of—must stay one step ahead of a wily group of professional killers. There’s lots of balls-out action in this one, great characters, and dead-on pacing.

Finally, last night, Tom Piccirilli’s FUCKIN’ LIE DOWN ALREADY has got to win some sort of award for Most Grueling Novella ever. Mortally wounded, and with his dead wife and son in tow, Clay sets out on a road trip to Hell, bent on revenge. His life seeping away with every second, he keeps holding on, holding on, until his bloody job is done. This is a gruesome, violent ride, horrific and heartfelt.

And that’ll do it this time.

By the way, this will probably be my new approach to talking about books here at Psycho-Noir. Just a round-up, sort of, every Thursday or Friday, of all the noteworthy things I’ve read over the week. Hope that works for all of you.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Happy New Year, friends. Let’s talk for a minute about damaged people, our fascination with them, and why emotionally-scarred protagonists move us so much.

What was it, a couple of years ago now, when the actor Owen Wilson tried to kill himself? I don’t know all the particulars, nor do I really care that much, but I do recall a brief flurry of media attention about it that died away as quickly as it started. Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky character actor, seemingly without a care in the world, gets depressed over a girlfriend or some-such and tries to top himself… well, I’m not without compassion, even though I never gave Owen Wilson much thought before that. I silently wished him well and went on with things.

But I learned something interesting about my wife then. Like me, she’d never been particularly interested in Owen Wilson. But after his failed attempt at suicide, he was suddenly… intriguing. We watched a flurry of his movies, some good, some bad, and I got a sense that Kim was searching for something inside the actor, some indication of the turbulent waters that roiled under the surface of his easy grin.

Her fascination with him came and went pretty quickly, but I found it all quite telling. She, like almost all of us, is compassionate about the emotional pain that other people carry. But more than that, she—and we—find it… interesting.

While Wilson’s personal anguish was well-disguised until then, the writers we tend to deify wore their pain and discontent on their sleeves. I doubt anyone was surprised that day in ’61 when Hemingway topped himself. And who can say they were thrown for a loop when Hunter Thompson did the same thing? Edgar Allan Poe, Robert E. Howard, David Goodis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett, Kurt Vonnegut… our personal pantheons are crowded with writers who seemed driven by pain. Even the Patron Saint of American Writers, Mark Twain himself, was, in his later years, fueled by misery.

And the stories they wrote reflected it. The protagonists of their stories were, usually, not heroic in the traditional sense—they were desperate for… something. A sense of accomplishment, or closure, or self-worth. And more often than not, none of those things came by the end of the story.

There’s a looming sense of unresolved, open-endedness to the best stories from those writers, an absolute refusal to sugar-coat their fictional worlds. They were bitter reflections of the universe in the writer’s minds. Dark, unforgiving places where nothing pure could really take root and flourish.

Why do so many of us respond to that? Why do we find it so… satisfying?

Do we recognize that world?

Granted, there are many readers (maybe even the majority of them) who don’t want to linger there. They want real heroes to identify with, they want healthy relationships played out on the page, they want resolution, and to see the bad guys lose and the universe set right. Who can blame them for wanting that? And maybe those readers are mentally healthier than the rest of us.

Or maybe, just maybe, those readers are afraid of something. I don’t know.

As for me, I’ll take the damaged protagonist, and the ambiguous ending and the universe askew. I know that place and am comfortable there.