Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Renewal of the Vows: Sort of

Tomorrow marks a twenty year anniversary of sorts for me. On January 1, 1989, I made a vow in the journal I was starting to keep. On that date, I gave myself five years to get published, and I promised myself that I would work on some writing task, no matter how small, each day. That meant I would read a book about writing, or study a grammar guide, or, mostly, that I would just write. And I added a last promise, that if I’d really tried hard for five years and had nothing to show for it, I’d quit writing and not look back. I’m glad I didn’t have to abandon writing. In fact, I sold several things that first year, and quite a bit since, although at times I wonder if it’s gotten any easier.

Several times over those first five years I had to “rededicate” myself to writing. Life does get in the way. I was also establishing my career in those years, and a marriage that ultimately didn’t survive, and I was raising a son. I don’t regret letting those things get in the way of my writing. They had to. No matter how important writing is, life is more important. Other people are more important. Children are the most important. You can’t write without doing some living yourself.

Eventually, it became sort of routine to “renew” my commitment to writing each New Years, even if I’d written a lot and had good success in the previous year. I’ll do it in my journal again tomorrow. I don’t really make resolutions, per se, but I do take stock, and I believe it’s important at least once a year to verbally acknowledge those things that remain important goals in your life.

Looking back now on that original vow, I think the only thing I might change is the time limit I set for myself. I don’t think the time matters because every writer grows and develops in their own way and at their own pace. It only matters how many words you’ve put on the page, and whether you’ve tried each time to make them better, and if you’ve put in the hard work and study that you must do to improve.

I hope everyone out there has a wonderful New Year’s eve and New Year’s Day. As for me, I’m planning on enjoying the three F’s—food, football, and fine reading.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Hero Problem

I recently read Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the first in the Doc Savage series. I thought it was pretty bad. In fact, I’ve never been a fan of the Doc Savage books. I’ve read maybe a dozen or so and while they often have interesting beginnings, and some rather cool concepts, I’m usually pretty bored before the end. So I started to wonder why, and I believe I’ve figured out a major reason.

I just don’t like the character of Doc Savage, mainly because he’s just too damn perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I like for my heroes to be heroic. I like to root for the main character in a story, and I don’t root for true anti-heroes, such as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But I like my characters to have complexity and at least some areas of gray.

Conan the Cimmerian, created by Robert E. Howard, is a good example of the kind of hero I like. Some call him anti-hero but I disagree. He certainly doesn’t always follow the rules of societies he finds himself in, but he clearly has an internal moral compass. He doesn’t betray a friend. And when he becomes king he indeed rules for the betterment of his people. He’s far from perfect, though. He was a thief when young. He’s ambitious, not above drunkenness, and has a weakness for women. These things make him far more human than Doc Savage and far more real. They also mean that he isn’t 100 percent predictable, as Doc Savage is.

There is one character who is pretty close to a true anti-hero that I do like, and that is Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane. But even Kane isn’t “quite” out for just himself. He has respect and liking for some people. He’s not just a vicious psychopath, which is how Hannibal Lecter was drawn in Red Dragon and through Silence of the Lambs.

I’d like Doc Savage a lot more if he ever had a lazy moment, or drank too much once in a while. Or, for goodness sake, what’s up with this “no women” thing? As I was reading this last volume there were several places where it talked about how Doc couldn’t allow himself to be weak toward women because he had such lofty goals. Reading it with today’s eye, I immediately thought, is he gay? Of course, many of these books were written in the 1930s and 1940s so they are dated in this way. But Howard wrote about Conan in the 1930s too and the character doesn’t seem nearly as dated.

A too perfect hero just doesn’t work for me. Give me a Conan type every time.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

For Lana

If I die tomorrow
I’ll call your name
From the dirt

I’ll sing this song
In the white;
In the smoke

And you’ll know
The last word I whispered

The last name
I called

If I die tomorrow

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Night of the Living Holidays

Like many bloggers, I’m going to take off a few days from blogging to celebrate the holidays. It’s also possible that I’ll head up to Arkansas to see my mom. She was put in the hospital for just a day, but they then took her to the nursing facility for a bit to get her physical therapy so she can come home. I’d like to be there to help out once she gets out of the nursing facility. But I also have to go back to work on January 7 so I need to go up before then. I’m still playing it by ear, to see when it would be best for me to be there. I’m not leaving until after Christmas for sure because I want to be here for that to be with Lana and to see my son, Josh.

I will post here if I decide to go, or when I decide to go, but I may not be visiting blogs for a few days anyway because of the holidays. In the meantime, I leave you with a review of Kolchak: Night Stalker of the Living Dead.

I was lucky again in winning a contest held by Christopher Mills over at Atomic Pulp, and he sent me the three volume comic book series that he wrote about Carl Kolchak warring with zombies in the corn fields of Nebraska. Chris wrote the books, and the art was done by Tim Hamilton. Dave Ulanski is the editor.

I’ve been a fan of Kolchak for a long time. I really enjoyed the original TV series, with Darren McGavin in the lead role. It’s one of the very few TV series I’ve ever caught all the episodes of. Chris perfectly captures the McGavin take on Kolchak, rumpled, cynical, a little brave and a little cowardly at the same time. If you like Kolchak and comics you should definitely like this three volume series. It’s available at Moonstone Books.

By the way, Chris’s Femme Noir series is also very good. In fact, I thought it was better than the Kolchak, and that’s saying something.

Until later, Merry Christmas to all. And to all a good night!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fire Ants and Mushrooms and Roses, Oh My

I have a series of posts related to writing that I’ve finished, but I’ve decided to wait until the new year to start running them. Get 2009 off to a rousing (writing) start, so to speak. In the meantime, today’s post is going to ramble a bit.

First, I’ll share a few pictures I took of our neighborhood yesterday. To begin with, there are two views of the Fire Ant nest at the end of our driveway. This thing has been growing and growing and is almost a foot high now. It looks like a freaking termite mound. I’m thinking atomic ant movie size here.

Second, this “field” of mushrooms are all “Fly Agarics.” They grow all over the place around us, and are particularly common in pine forests, which is mostly where we live. They are famous for being “magic” mushrooms, with hallucinogenic properties produced by an active ingredient called muscimol. This field is just across the dirt road from us, in our neighbor’s yard. There’s also a close up view of a couple of the fly agaric caps. They’ll kill you pretty quickly if you overdose on them.

Third, is a rose “tree,” not a bush, that grows down the road about ten yards from our mailbox. As you can see, the blooms are gorgeous, but this is not a typical thorn bush. I have no idea what its official name is. Most of the blooms are bloody crimson but one has a lot of white streaks in it for a nice contrast.

After finishing the book No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, which I thoroughly enjoyed—even the movie is very good—I chose a less challenging work called Bronson, by Philip Rawls, published by Manor Books in 1975. Less challenging is an understatement. It’s horribly written and is, as I suspected, a complete rip off of Death Wish, probably being more influenced by the movie starring Charles Bronson than by the original 1972 novel of that name by Brian Garfield. That novel is much better written by the way.

The main character, Richard Bronson, is an engineer, much like Paul Kersey of “Death Wish,” who is an architect. The Kersey character became a vigilante after his wife and daughter were attacked and killed by muggers. The Bronson character becomes a vigilante after his wife and “two” kids are attacked and killed by muggers. Paul Kersey had been a combat medic in Korea; the Bronson character here is an ex-Green Beret from Vietnam. There are many other similarities., none of them flattering to the actor Charles Bronson and the original “Death Wish” novel or film. Say what you will about Death Wish, the original book, and even the movie, at least tried to be about more than just grisly vigilante murders. This book doesn’t make that effort.

Most amazingly, the Bronson books were actually a “series.” Hard to believe they ever published more than one. The one I have is subtitled “Streets of Blood,” while the first volume in the series is apparently “Blind Rage.” There is also one called “Switchblade.” I’d almost like to see if the other two are as bad as this one, but even spending fifty cents on such literature might be impossible for me. I’ll have to see how I feel after a week or two of recovery.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Celebrate if you’re a mind to.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Great New Book

I just finished a great book, and even greater, it’s the first in a series. I always love finding a compelling new series to read.

The book is What Angels Fear by C. S. Harris, who is also know by the real life name of Candice Proctor. This is a historical mystery series set in England, primarily London, during the early 1800s, the “Regency” period. It features Sebastian St. Cyr, a nobleman who has been rusted a bit by the dark side of life that he’s witnessed, but whose basic goodness is untarnished beneath. St. Cyr hangs out with a lot of “undesirables,” or so they would seem to his noble father and to his social climbing sister. But St. Cyr finds that nobility, and depravity, can each wear fine clothes or foul.

The series stands at four books right now, What Angels Fear, When Gods Die, Why Mermaids Sing, and Where Serpents Sleep. The first one certainly made me want to delve right into the others, all of which I have on my shelves.

What Angels Fear begins with a brutal murder of a popular actress from the London stage, and our St. Cyr is accused of the horror. Rather than flee the country, as many of his friends urge him, he remains in England to solve the crime and clear his name. He gets more experience of the seamy side of London than he might have preferred. But he thrives, and even manages to rekindle a love he thought he’d lost.

The mystery at the heart of “Angels” is a good one, with several surprising developments, but the real joy here is characters and the chance to really “live” for a little while in a very different sort of life. Candy, who has a Ph.D. in history, knows her time period, and the intimate little details are wonderfully realized. And besides, how can you not like a book in which London’s “yellow fog” virtually becomes a character.

Check it out!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Recent SF Dream

A generational spaceship had been discovered which was inhabited by two different alien races. Both had been reduced to a relatively simple level of culture and were constantly in conflict with each other over resources. What had been a decidedly “hot” war in the past had deteriorated into more of an exhausted hate fest because the numbers of each group had declined so precipitously. I was part of a group of humans who were trying to negotiate a peace between the two warring factions. I don’t know how we found out about the ship or how we reached it. The story began with our group already onboard. I didn't "see" the origins of the story; as often in dreams, I just "knew" them.

Although both groups of aliens were relatively humanoid in appearance, there were some differences. One group was very tall, and…wedge shaped. They looked like slices of pie from behind, with two eyes on either side of a triangular shaped face. The other aliens were very squat, and almost frog looking. They were quite a bit less humanoid.

The representatives of the two groups sniped at each other constantly throughout our attempts to negotiate, and my fellow humans were on the verge of giving up. Then the wedge shaped alien representatives did give up. At least, they rose as one and started to stomp toward the doorway. In desperation, I launched into an impassioned speech. I can’t remember much of the details, only that I focused on how the two groups had to live, or die, together. By the end of my speech everyone was in tears, including me, and the Wedge aliens had returned to their seats.

We humans then began to carefully withdraw from the scene as the two alien races began to talk with each other and, for the first time, seemed to speak honestly and honorably. I remember looking back on the room and thinking, we’d done it, we’d brought peace to these war torn groups.

We took an elevator upward and as the dream ended we stepped out of the elevator on top of a spaceship to look down across it. It was a series of half spheres, each one seeming to have bubbled into others. Our ship was docked nearby and I remember it being sleek with a huge back fin rising up into the blackness of space. Then I woke up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Storytelling Failing

I watched two movies yesterday. First, I watched Treasure Planet, an animated retelling of Treasure Island, set in a future with sailed starships. Next, Lana and I watched the recent remake of The Incredible Hulk. I really liked Treasure Planet and didn’t care for the “Hulk.”

Later, Lana and I talked about the movies we’ve watched lately that were “less” than compelling, The Strangers, Mongol, and whatever other ones we’d seen that we couldn’t even remember the titles of. We both decided that Hollywood made better movies in the 1970s and 1980s than today, and I was trying to decide why. A reason occurred to me that I’m throwing out to see what folks think.

I suspect that the people making movies in the 70s and 80s were largely influenced by books, while many of the folks making movies now are influenced by other movies and TV, or by comic books, which are closer to TV/Movies than to regular books. Movies influenced from books seem, to me, to have a better sense of storytelling, of combining all elements such as characters, action, and setting into a complete experience. Movies made by folks who basically only watch other movies or movie-like experiences lack that completeness.

How else to explain my yesterday’s experience? I much enjoyed Treasure Planet, based on a wonderfully fine novel, while with the Hulk I was constantly thrown out of the story by problems with continuity, things that just seemed simple storytelling "don’ts." For example, a chase scene early in the movie, which probably lasts a total of 15 minutes of “real life” time, begins clearly in daylight, and suddenly it is night! Say what? Or another fight scene takes place under a completely blue sky, until suddenly at the end it begins to pour down rain.

Now, Lana looked the Hulk up online and found that they did a lot of neat things to reflect back on the history of the character and on the TV show, and they were the “greenest” production ever in being environmentally friendly, but how could they take such care with these details and let the scene continuity vary randomly? It really hurt the movie for me, and all I can think is that they weren’t quite coming from a storytelling perspective. Rain is dramatic. Throw it in! Night is dramatic. Stuff it here! So it doesn’t make sense? The audience trained on TV and Video Games and comics won’t care. Well, uhm, there are still some of us out here who remember what good storytelling was like.

Nuff said!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Snow Day

I woke up a little after 8:00 Thursday morning to an amazing sight. It was snowing! Literally snowing. Actual flakes instead of the occasional hard pellets of ice that we do get. I’ve lived in southern Louisiana since 1986, and in that time I’ve seen it “snow” twice, which means I saw a few flakes mixed with sleet. But this was an actual snow that continued for hours and ended up laying about three inches of the white fluff on our entire neighborhood. (Some forty miles north of us it snowed eight inches!) I quickly went out and had a walkabout.

Later, I completed my grading and got my final grades turned in. I still have a few student letters of recommendation to do, but otherwise I’m officially finished until January. I have a deadline on an article but I’m hoping to have time for some fiction as well. Maybe I can also get some stuff submitted.

In reading, after taking a well-earned break from doing anything, I finished my night off with Darwin’s God by Cornelius G. Hunter. It was a complete waste of time, and I wish I had those hours back. Hunter bases his “entire” book on the fact that Darwin commented several times in On the Origin of the Species about how God would not have deliberately engineered a world with so much savagery in it and with so many poorly designed structures. Hunter points out, rightly, that this presupposes a view of God as essentially a benevolent, merciful, and competent creator.

After this single point, however, Hunter states the same thing over and over throughout 175 boring pages. His primary addition to this argument is that the very fact that Darwin mentioned God in his book means that evolution is really “entirely” an argument against the positive view of God rather than for evolution. Of course, Darwin made such comments in his book. Any new theory is going to point out how it is different from the prevailing theory.

When he’s not reemphasizing the above point, Hunter is claiming that the evidence for evolution is simply not evidence. He makes this claim over and over…, with no justification whatsoever. He has to know he’s engaging in “baffling with bullshit.”

Finally, though, the worst part of this book is its cowardice. I wondered if Hunter would have the guts to say what lies at the heart of his argument. He didn’t. I wasn’t surprised, since it would have horribly insulted many Christians who probably make up the book’s primary audience. If we follow Hunter’s arguments to their logical conclusion it would mean that God, according to Hunter, is capricious, vicious, and hateful. Hunter’s God is a trickster and a liar, and Hunter should have had the cojones to say so.

And oh, wow, the snow is still here this morning, although it's melting fast. This is unheard of.

Forgive me for not getting around to everyone's blog the past couple of days. I'm off to visit now, although I doubt I'll be able to catch up on all the posts I missed.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


All finals given. Grading has commenced.

Brain slowly collapsing under the pressure.

Mental failure imminent. Failure imminent!

Further blog posting and commenting delayed.

Recovery possible in two days.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Poetry Mood, Movies, and Violet Raines

How much does your already established mood influence your enjoyment of poetry, fiction, and movies? A couple of days ago I started reading Virgin of the Apocalypse, a poetry collection by Corrine De Winter. I tend to read only a few poems a day from such collections, and I started this one on Thursday. At first I couldn’t get into the pieces. Of course there was beautiful language, interesting word use, and strongly imagistic writing, everything that Corrine De Winter is known for, but I wasn’t feeling much emotional power from the pieces.

Then on Saturday morning I picked up the same collection and read “It Was in a Time of War.” Suddenly the meaning clicked. It sang. I turned the page, read “The Ballad of Marie Virgo.” Again, bam, the resonance overtook me. I flipped back to poems I’d read the day before and found in them now the meaning and emotional power I’d previously missed.

What happened? I had given a test on Thursday, and even when I was doing other things part of my mind was focused on grading I had to do. My mood was blocking any chance the poems had to engage my emotions. Once I got the hardest grading done, my mood lightened and suddenly the poems could freely enter my consciousness.

Obviously, the emotional power dwelt in the poetry, but my mood was blocking the full experience. On the other hand, three movies I’ve seen lately failed to engage my emotions, even though I wanted to watch them. We watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Strangers, and Mongol, none of which I cared for. The new Indiana Jones wasn’t as horrible as some have claimed, but I never felt caught up in the story and the ending felt sort of silly to me. The Strangers was supposed to be a horror film. It wasn’t. I didn’t like the movie’s main characters, and the “threat” was very weak. The good guys were a full grown adult male and adult female, facing off with a young male teen and two teenage women. The good guys had a shotgun while the bad teens had an axe and knives. Why didn’t the adult couple just clobber the teens in ten minutes and go out for breakfast? As for Mongol, it had beautiful scenery, and most fight scenes were pretty cool, but overall it just didn’t work as a story. Whenever young Temudjin (Genghis Khan) got into serious trouble the filmmakers cut away, leaving us to assume the miraculous. And though people were threatening to kill him throughout the movie, and he was captured numerous times, his enemies always managed to let him escape. Once he just ran off, because no one had bothered to tie his feet or tie him to a pole, and no one was watching him. Another time they put the great warrior in a yoke but didn’t tie him to a pole and left one guy to guard him. Were we supposed to be surprised when he escaped? There were many other silly parts to this movie.

Finally, though, I started reading Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightening by Danette Haworth, about noon on Saturday and finished it within a few hours. What a wonderful book! It didn’t matter what mood I was in, the book put me in the right mood to really enjoy it. “Violet Raines” is what I’d call a “Tweener” book. It’s not quite a young adult novel, but not quite a children’s book either. I’m a long way from the 12-year-olds that populate this book, but I really found myself involved in their stories and dramas. I thought the story was a very honest portrayal of both the strengths and weaknesses of young folks who are struggling with burgeoning maturity. Well done, Danette. Thanks for an enjoyable afternoon.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Equal Time for Weird Men

I did a post about women being weird, so it only seems fair that I’d expose some of the odder tendencies of my own gender. Of course, not all men will show these things, but many will have to sheepishly, or not, admit to being characterized.

Without further ado, here are five weirdities about men. Feel free to agree or disagree. But remember, it’s a man telling you these things.

1. Why don’t men like to cuddle more? I do enjoy it, but try as I might, a few minutes of cuddling go a long way. I think, for me, it’s because I have a very hard time doing…nothing. I know it’s not nothing, but it seems like nothing to me. Stillness is a tough thing.

2. I’ve wondered why many women like to watch movies that make them cry. Well, I have to wonder why men like to do things that “hurt.” I once stepped out into our back yard to see my 12 year old son punching his best friend in the shoulder as hard as he could. I leaped to stop him, only to be told that they were “taking turns” busting each other on the arm to see who could take it best. I shook my head, told them I didn’t want to see anyone bawling on my watch, and went back inside. Of course, I have to admit that a main attraction of football was being able to hit someone as hard as I could and not get punished for it. I still love it when I see a football player get “jacked up.” But don’t get me started on Jackass and it’s brother shows.

3. Why don’t more men love to read? Of course, I’m talking to a biased sample of men here on the blog, most of whom seem to enjoy reading. But I know a lot of other men who hardly ever read. Why in the world not?

4. Why are men typically less religious than women, but when they are religious why are they often more fanatical about it than women? It’s men who tend to run things like the Taliban or the Inquisition, for example.

5. Why is it that you’re better off falling asleep, or passing out, around female friends rather than male friends? I believe, although correct me if I’m wrong, that when a young woman passes out among her peers she is quite likely to have a pillow put under her head and a blanket over her feet. At worst she might have a mildly embarrassing picture taken of her in such a state. But when young men pass out among their male friends, they are likely to wake up with shaving cream all over them, or with a bra tied over their head and a plastic sex toy in their hands. And when photos are taken by their “friends,” it quite likely involves someone’s butt (or other anatomical features) next to their face.

If anyone has the answers to these items, I'd like to know.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Day of Listening

Moonrat mentioned the “National Day of Listening” the other day. She suggested we send her links to our own “Day of Listening” stories, which are stories we’ve heard from others rather than ones that actually happened to us (or that we remember happening to us at least), and she’d post them. Most people who took part told either heart warming or heart wrenching stories. Well, I’m behind the times as usual, but it was such a great idea that I’m going to do it anyway. And I’m going to tell one that isn’t so heart warming or wrenching. I had the following tale from one of my brothers.

There was an old house a couple of miles from where I grew up called the Slavely house. Nobody had lived in it for a long time, not since Old Man Slavely hung himself there. One of the gorier details is that he hung there for four days in the summer’s heat until he was found and taken down. Some say he was buried in the yard without a gravestone to mark the site. Some say his rope was buried with him. I can never think of that part of the story without imagining the buzz of flies.

Years passed and the house became a source of scares for local kids, and for many adults too. There were dares for people to spend the night. None did. The usual excuse was that the basement had partially filled with rain and water moccasins and the floor was none too sturdy. You didn’t want to go crashing down among the snakes in the dark.

The weak floor theory wasn’t completely true, because one local family sometimes used the house as a barn to store hay for their cattle. As you might imagine, no one liked hauling hay to that house. Now, I was too young to haul hay at the time this story took place, but I later did go by the Slavely house a few times. One evening I was there at twilight, and the house certainly projected a dark atmosphere as it squatted amid its grove of gnarled oaks. I left the vicinity pretty quickly, wondering if I might, by chance, be stepping on the old man’s grave there in the yard. Believe me, I was glad to shed the aura of that house as I made my way rapidly toward home and light.

On the day of the event I’m relating, two brothers were hauling hay to the Slavely house. I’ll call them Jerry (the older) and Willie (the younger). It was an overcast day, and Jerry made Willie go into the house to actually stack the hay. Willie wasn’t happy with this and kept glancing warily around as he placed the bales one on top of the other on the scratched old wooden floor.

Jerry, knowing his brother was nervous, began repeating, and no doubt embellishing, terror tales of Old Man Slavely’s hauntings. They were unloading the hay through a broken out window into the house, and as the stories grew in horror Willie started stacking bales closer and closer to the window where the sun shone rather than farther back in the gloom-laden room.

Jerry, sensing his advantage, began maneuvering for the kill. He began to unveil the most grotesque of the stories, the one about Mr. Slavely’s anniversary. The anniversary of his suicide, that is. Some claimed that every year on the day of his death, Mr. Slavely would claw his way up through the dirt of his front yard and return to the home he’d once known. He’d drag along his old rope and would then suspend himself from the rafters and hang there for exactly four days.

While Willie’s eyes bulged further with each dreadful word, Jerry suddenly looked past Willie’s shoulder in terror and screamed: “AND THERE HE IS!”

Willie leaped for the window with a shriek. But he jumped so high that his head hit the top of the windowsill and he knocked himself out cold.

Jerry was still laughing when Willie finally came around. And then the younger brother came close to killing the older and burying him in the yard with Old Man Slavely. I’ve always thought it would have been justifiable homicide.

I’ll end with one last thing. Some say that anyone who hears or reads a story about Mr. Slavely will get a strange visit within 48 hours of the experience. The lucky ones will hear no more than the sound of a heavily laden rope creaking slowly back and forth in the shadows away from the light. The unlucky ones? Well: