SONG LYRIC—LOVER IN DISGUISE

Writing

An unabashed, yearning love song. Not my usual style, but every once in a while I write one.

so here we are again like so many times before
you crying in your beer, me trying to ignore
how the bar lights sparkle in your eyes even through the tears
how many times I’ve heard this same old story through the years
so I hold your hand and tell you things will work out for the best
and I ask myself again how I got into this mess

(CHORUS)
baby I got heartstrings that never been played
I try to see you differently but these feelings just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

so here we are again like so many times before
spending all night talking, sharing hopes and dreams and more
I wish that I could reach out, cup your face between my hands
tell you I won’t hurt you, tell you let me be your man
I won’t take your heart for granted, and I won’t tell you lies
so look at me and try to see this lover in disguise

(CHORUS)
baby I got heartstrings that never been played
I try to see you differently but these feeling just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

(BRIDGE)
so here we are again like so many times before
but now my heart is open wide and I’m standing at your door
take me in yours arms and try the two of us on for size
and spend a little time with your lover in disguise

(CHORUS)
baby I got heart strings that never been played
please try to see me differently ’cause these feelings just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

BOOK REVIEW: MORE BETTER DEALS BY JOE LANSDALE

Reading

Small town East Texas in the 1960s. A Korean War vet car salesman/repo man not afraid to bend, and sometimes break, the law. a curvy blonde femme fatale with an abusive husband. A drive-in, and a pet cemetery with just one actual occupant, a horse. A beautiful Cadillac. Throw in a kidnapping, violent cops, more than one double-cross, and a heaping dollop of sixties era racism, and you have the ingredients for Joe Lansdale’s new, altogether delightful hardboiled crime novel, More Better Deals.

Lansdale plays in just about every genre sandbox—horror, fantasy, western, historical, mashups of all of the above—and does every bit of it exceptionally well. But where I think he truly fires on all cylinders is when he writes about crime and criminals. I’m thinking of novels like The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Edge of Dark Water, and Cold In July; plus, my personal favorites, the Hap and Leonard books, for my money the most consistently entertaining series being written today. Lansdale’s bad guys are almost never big time masterminds engaged in multi-million dollar heists. His criminals are small town, down on their luck, desperate losers. They may be unrepentant scumbags who revel in evil, but just as often they’re sad flakes caught between a rock and a hard place, who make one too many wrong decisions they can’t walk back.

The characters in More Better Deals for the most part fall somewhere in between those two extremes. They’re all at least a little bit mean, if not downright evil, and they give in to their baser instincts without much arm twisting. They’re good looking, even charming, but the beauty and charm are hiding an ugly darkness, and a bald cynicism. When things go bad, and they damn sure do, every single character decides to go along for the ride.

Two more things I want to mention.

I said at the beginning that More Better Deals has something to say about racism. Lansdale often talks about race and racism, and he always does so in a way that’s straight forward, sometimes painful, always thoughtful, and most of all uncompromising. He may make you uncomfortable, but I think that could say more about you than him. Every bit of this is true in More Better Deals. It gives the novel an added layer of moral complexity that deepens the story.

Lastly, Lansdale is, I humbly suggest, the best writer of dialogue working today. Listening to the rhythms of his characters’ speech is like listening to rough poetry—smart-assed, funny, threatening, and pathetic, sometimes all at once.

Read More Better Deals, and experience the exhilarating enjoyment of a writer at the very top of his game.

TV SHOW FOR KIDS—THE MAGIC EASEL

Drawing

Many years back I worked with a a start-up kids TV show called The Magic Easel. Part of my job included designing the show’s opening sequence, which was a tour of the small town where the show was set. Just about all the art has disappeared into the great unknown, but here are some of the town sketches, plus the one piece of finished art I still have.

BOOK REVIEW: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

Reading

I know I’m late to the party, and I have no excuses (except there are just so many books in the world to read, and so little time), but the first novel by Jones I read was Mongrels. Mongrels is a southern gothic white trash werewolf epic distinguished by brilliant storytelling, impeccable pacing, characters who feel lived-in and true, and the reinvention of a sub-genre’s tropes that feels wholly original. Yeah, I liked it. Here’s my review, if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/01/23/book-review-mongrels-by-stephen-graham-jones/

Good news is, I think The Only Good Indians, Jones’ newest, is even better. It’s the story of four best friends, the incident ten years past that ties them together, and the supernatural entity that holds all their fates. The Only Good Indians is emotionally devastating, harrowing, sometimes gut-wrenching, with moments of body horror that are delightfully disturbing. The violence doesn’t just include humans, but animals as well, and it’s just as sad and painful. Jones excels at pacing, at ratcheting up tension to a nearly unbearable level and then sustaining it. Even in the quietest moments of the novel, whispered conversations under the stars, the tension is always there, waiting to spring. It’s exhilarating, if you can bear it.

Nearly every character in the novel is Native American, either Blackfeet or Crow, and the care Jones takes to make them feel achingly, painfully real, to give them not just a back story but a history, even a pre-history, is revelatory. It feels…authentic, I guess is the word I’m looking for. The way they talk, the rhythms of their speech. Where they live, from the reservations they grew up on, and where some still live, to the suburbs where they try to escape to. The familial and friend relationships are tangled and troubled, with love both alive and very much squandered. Much like with Mongrels, the characters and settings feel lived-in. Jones clearly knows and respects his characters, and he doesn’t do them the disservice of making them nobly one-dimensional. They have faults. In many cases they have not treated their loved-ones well. They haven’t treated themselves well. This makes them all the more human, which makes what happens all the more shattering. The supernatural entity, which I’m purposely not describing because discovering it for yourself is part of the fun, likewise feels authentic, it feels organic to the story. Inevitable.

Another thing I want to mention: Jones’ handling of action rivals that of Joe Lansdale and Joe Abercrombie. Whether describing a desperate escape from supernatural horror across the frozen grassland, or a game of basketball with life or death stakes, he makes you feel every drop of sweat, every sharp intake of breath. No matter how complicated the set piece, how many pieces in motion, Jones’ descriptive powers never flag. The Only Good Indians is filled with muscular, visceral, heart-pounding action.

Okay, one more thing. Interspersed throughout the horror, when you least expect it, are moments of well-earned humor. The four friends have the kind of comfortable, easy, smart-assed humor with each other that, once again, feels real. Their conversations were some of my favorite parts of the novel.

The Only Good Indians is getting plenty of laudatory press, all of it richly deserved. Listen to the hype. This is immediately on my short list for best novel of the year.

FLASH FICTION—PINE TREES

Writing

I wrote this piece of flash fiction to be a bit of a short, sharp punch to the gut. I hope it succeeds. It first appeared in a literary journal called Iceberg.

The girl surfaced into consciousness briefly to the smell of pine trees, eyes still squeezed tightly shut. Her body lurched violently and a wave of nausea washed over her. She sank back into darkness.

She choked back the urge to vomit the next time she came to and cautiously opened her eyes. Her vision swam, doubled, refused to clear. There are the pine trees, she thought. But why are they growing in the sky? Darkness again.

When the girl awoke for the third time the nausea had subsided and she could see, but that only made things worse. She was in the back of a van. The pine tree sky forest resolved itself to be dozens of pine tree shaped air fresheners hanging from the ceiling. They bounced and swayed together with the movement of the vehicle. The van had been stripped to bare metal, the walls and floor filthy, caked with rust and dirt. The pine trees could not completely mask a foul smell that filled the small space.

The girl was sprawled on the floor as if she had been thrown there. Her head throbbed, and a sharp pain burned between her shoulder blades. She tried to sit up and realized her hands were tied tightly behind her back. Her legs were bound, knees to ankles, with duck tape. The girl pushed with her feet until she was wedged against one wall, and managed to sit up. She looked toward the front of the van. She could see through a half-open metal door into the cab, where a middle-aged man was driving. His hair was cut short, and he wore old-fashioned black-rimmed glasses. The girl noticed that one corner of his glasses was wrapped with tape. The man was wearing dirty coveralls, and leather gloves even though it was stifling hot in the van.

The girl did not panic. She had been trained for this. She knew exactly what to do, what to say.

“My father will pay whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt me,” she said in a strong, clear voice. Her father was very rich, and had long been fearful that someone would kidnap one of his children. He had drilled them all on how to act should the unthinkable happen. Be cooperative. Be respectful. Do not show fear.

The man glanced back at her in the rearview mirror. “What’s that, honey?” he asked.

“I don’t know how long we’ve been driving, but I’m sure my father knows I’ve been kidnapped by now. He’ll be waiting by the phone for your ransom demand.” The girl tried to sound brave, but she heard a little quaver in her voice and it annoyed her.

She could see the man smile in the rearview mirror, and she thought, it’s going to be alright. She forced a smile of her own and said, “Please, sir. I’d like to go home now.”

The man turned his head so he was looking at the girl directly. “Darlin’, you got it all wrong,” he said. “I don’t know who your daddy is, and I don’t care how much money he has. There’s not gonna be any ransom.” He turned back to face the road and said, more to himself than to her, “That’s not why I took you.”

ILLUSTRATORS WHO INSPIRED ME

Drawing
The work of Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, and Stephen Fabian

When I was a wee lad (okay, Junior High), I began to realize that creating art would be part of my future, and given that, I also began to notice the work of artists whose work I admire. Funny thing, though. While I appreciated many fine artists, particularly Dali and the other surrealists, the artists I gravitated to were illustrators—comic artists, magazine and book cover illustrators. They were doing the work I wanted to do. Here are some of those illustrators, the ones that made me want to be an artist. This is off the top of my head, and certainly not a complete list. I’ll start with the three illustrators mentioned above.

VIRGIL FINLAY and HANNES BOK—I’m lumping them together because for some reason I always think of them together. Both did extraordinarily imaginative, extraordinarily detailed work for pulp magazines on crappy pulp paper that in no way did their work justice. Truly inspiring.
http://www.artnet.com/artists/virgil-finlay/

STEPHEN FABIAN—I discovered Fabian in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his work immediately stood out for the texture and shadow of his work.
https://www.stephenfabian.com/

FRANK FRAZETTA—I came of age in the seventies, so of course Frazetta is on this list, and not just because of his voluptuous women. His paintings have so much power, so much purpose. He’s a master of competition, and I love his paint handling. Boris Vallejo was working at the same time, in much the same market, but I always loved Frazetta more. As excellent a technician as Vallejo was, he was a little too polished for my taste. Frazetta was just more exciting.
http://frankfrazetta.net/

ROBERT CRUMB—Crumb is a master, pure and simple. Consummate style, humor, storytelling, and above all exceptional pen and ink technique. Hey may be a curmudgeon, but he’s my kind of curmudgeon.
https://www.crumbproducts.com/

BILL WATTERSON—Speaking of curmudgeons, Watterson is another one. Calvin and Hobbes is, to my mind, the finest comic strip ever made (nods to Doonesbury and Bloom County as right up there). Beautifully loose, expressive brush work. Watterson walked away from it when shrinking newspaper comic sections pissed him off. He lives not far from me here in Northeast Ohio, and it makes me happy just knowing he’s there.
https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes

WILLIAM STOUT—Another graduate of underground comics, Stout is just one helluva illustrator, with exquisite line work and amazing detail. Not as well know as he should be.
https://www.williamstout.com/

LEO AND DIANE DILLON—I worked my late teen years at a Waldenbooks, and Leo and Diane Dillon were responsible for some of my favorite book covers. An interracial married couple, the Dillons have a unique style all their own. Their work is instantly recognizable.
http://leo-and-diane-dillon.blogspot.com/

MURRAY TINKLEMAN—Often, right next to cover art by the Dillons, you’d find cover art by Tinkleman. His densely cross-hatched artwork is also instantly recognizable.
http://tinkelmanstudio.com/

DONALD ROLLER WILSON—Chances are you may not have heard of Wilson, and that’s a damn shame. Richly realistic, yet utterly fantastic, often hilarious, often featuring animals of all kinds. Wilson is a true original.
https://donaldrollerwilson.com/

ROBERT TUBBESING—Unless you grew up in Northeast Ohio, you probably haven’t heard of Bob Tubbesing, either. He taught commercial art at Maple Heights High School, my alma mater, and at Cooper School of Art, which I attended as well. Perhaps more importantly, he did some of the most inspiring pen and ink work I ever saw, filled with mysterious imagination. I believe he had some success as a gallery artist, but I couldn’t find any decent art links to include here.

Looking for links to include here, I was thrilled to discover that many of these artists are still doing exciting, vital work. Have a look for yourself, and get to know these inspiring illustrators.

SONG LYRIC: BE MY GRAVITY

Writing

Flat on my back staring up at the sky
watching the cloud caravan sailing by
holding the grass as the earth spun around
feeling the dew still wet on the ground
I closed my eyes tight, imagined myself
spinning through space on a trip somewhere else
my feet like a comet burning a trail
light years behind me, straight as a rail
then a shadow crept in and eclipsed the sun
I opened my eyes and knew you were the one

pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

there I was flat on the bottom of the pool
holding my breath like some kind of fool
thinking about God, thinking about death
thinking I should open wide and drink a deep breath
I imagined my friends all gathered around
and me in the coffin, not making a sound
they’d stop one by one to pay their respects
then move on, my dear dead soul to dissect
but a face swam above me, bright as the sun
I opened my eyes and knew you were the one

pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

please pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

BOOK REVIEW—SURVIVOR SONG BY PAUL TREMBLAY

Reading

In the space of just a few years, Paul Tremblay has become one of my favorite horror authors. Check that, one of my favorite authors, period. After Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, and his short story collection Growing Things and Other Stories, Tremblay is one of the few writers whose new work immediately goes to the top of my TBR pile.

Survivor Song might be his best novel yet, and that’s saying something.

The bones of the story are deceptively simple—a fast-acting, rabies-like virus is rampaging through Massachusetts, infecting mammals, humans included, at a terrifying rate. The main characters are two women, a pediatrician and her extremely pregnant friend. The friend has been bitten by an infected man, and may be infected herself. We follow the two of them over the course of just a few frantic hours as they navigate the chaos of a town overwhelmed by a catastrophic emergency.

What Tremblay does with this setup is breathtaking. Imagine being aboard a runaway freight train heading for a cliff, knowing with painful certainty that the end is coming but being powerless to stop it, knowing that people we have come to know are on that train and we can’t save them. That is what reading Survivor Song is like. The novel starts at breakneck speed and then accelerates, and keeps accelerating, twisting you up tighter and tighter. By the end of the book I felt wrung out, both physically and emotionally.

Given the thrill ride he’s built here, Tremblay doesn’t sacrifice nuance, he doesn’t sacrifice fully-realized, characters that you feel deeply for. There are meditations on the nature of friendship that are surprising in their depth. And even though the book deals with an event that is effecting a lot of people, it is sometimes startlingly intimate.

The science here is terrifying in its believability. With the current state of the world, Survivor Song feels not just plausible, but prescient. In that way it reminded me of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, one of my favorite reads of 2019. This novel could bookend that one.

One final thing. There is a chapter in Survivor Song, an interlude. Without giving anything away, I think this chapter features some of the finest writing Tremblay has done—it reaches a sustained emotional resonance, a horrible inevitability, that will rip your heart out. It just about broke me.

BOOK REVIEW—I AM NOT YOUR FINAL GIRL by Claire C. Holland

Reading

My son ( a high school English teacher) and I share a love, maybe even an obsession, for genre fiction—horror, fantasy, science fiction. This love extends to movies as well as books, and not always the highest quality of movies. There’s a lot to appreciate in even the cheesiest of 70s and 80s slasher movies and all the tropes associated with them. Movies like Scream and Cabin In the Woods got a lot of mileage out of unkillable killers, horny teenagers, and of course, final girls.

Which brings us to this indie gem of a poetry book, I Am Not Your Final Girl. I recently turned 60, and my son gave me this slim, unassuming volume as a perfect birthday gift. Holland does something amazing here. She takes what in other hands could have been a whacky idea—write a series of poems celebrating the final girls (and some who didn’t make it) of movies from throughout history—and invests the poems with so much heart, pain, triumph, tragedy, inspiration, and most of all humanity, that I read through it twice in the same evening.

Each poem is dedicated to a specific final girl, from a specific movie. If you’re imaging that the poems are just retellings of the movies, think again. Holland uses the characters for jumping off points, for heartfelt meditations on sexuality, feminism, violence, sorrow and redemption. Some of the poems are triumphant, some overwhelmingly sad. Many of them are revelations. Holland demands new evaluations of even the slashiest of slasher movies.

Whether you’re a fan of slasher films or not, and you’ll probably get even more out of it if you are, get yourself a copy of I Am Not Your Final Girl. Do it for yourself. Do it for Laurie Strode.

BOOK REVIEW—BIG LIZARD BY JOE LANSDALE

Reading

Friends, family members, and probably a good number of perfect strangers, know that I read a lot, and their first question (actually their second question, the first is usually what are you reading now?) tends to be who’s your favorite author? My answer to that question has changed over the years, but nowadays, more often than not, I say Joe Lansdale.

Lansdale writes a little bit (actually a lot) of everything—horror, crime fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, you name it. He does it all well, and with the Hap & Leonard books, he’s writing the most consistently entertaining ongoing series currently in existence.

All of this is to say that I was tickled ten shades of pink to be able to read Big Lizard, a new novel he wrote with his son Keith. Big Lizard is available for pre-order now (https://subterraneanpress.com/big-lizard) from Subterranean Press, and will be published in October. Jump on the bandwagon now, kids, this one’s a keeper! If you’ve read Lansdale’s Drive-In novels, he’s playing in the same sandbox here. Much like those novels, this is balls to the wall, gonzo storytelling at its finest. It features a rag-tag group of heroes, including an overweight security guard, a talking chicken with an eye patch, and a teenage tech genius who lives in an abandoned Noah’s Ark replica. Oh yeah, the security guard metamorphosizes into the Big Lizard of the title. There’s a deadly supernatural ritual that goes horribly wrong, and some interdimensional travel into the literal fires of hell. Also, lots of fried chicken and biscuits.

Did I mention the giant, homicidal chicken? There’s a giant, homicidal chicken, who turns out to be Big Lizard’s nemesis. Because, what Big Lizard also is, is a super hero origin story, and every super hero needs a nemesis. The Lansdale team delivers in every way here. Big Lizard is laugh-out-loud funny, profane, and brimming with cartoony violence. It’s also brimming with startlingly original language. Both men have a gift for describing what should be indescribable.

Do yourself a favor, and pre-order this novel now. You’ll be glad you did.

POEM—SAILOR ON AN ALIEN SEA

Writing

I woke to the pitch and the roll of the deck,
with a rope at my neck and rough planking beneath me,
the foaming white sea spray trying to reach me,
the sky a dark yellow that whirled above me,
and two pale red suns that the sky bled and ran.
I felt a soft touch and my fingers met silk,
and a girl with no eyes took me up by the hand.
Guided by fingers that slid along railing,
her hair whispering back to the sea wind’s lost wailing,
she led me past crewmen that bent at their oars.
With lean muscles straining and braided hair trailing,
they sliced at the water that tumbled and roared.
Each face looked up as we walked slowly past,
and each face was eyeless, from one to the last.
She led to a place at the end of the oars.
I sat and took hold of the long wooden handle,
and lost myself soon in the rhythm and pull,
in the flapping of wings and the screaming of gulls,
in the slapping of water ‘gainst the barnacled hull,
in the two suns that set and the three moons that rise,
in the dark yellow sky that whirls and sighs.
I am a sailor on an alien sea.
I have only the gulls to talk to me.
I have only the wind to hold me up straight and tall,
only my eyes to search for a shore that we never will see.
And a long ago dream that answered the call.

BOOK REVIEW: A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT BY BECKY CHAMBERS

Reading

I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers a couple of years ago. I went in blind, knowing only that it generally fell into the category of space opera, and that it had good word of mouth. That good word of mouth didn’t begin to prepare me for the delights of this novel. Chambers gave me a fully realized spacefaring future, then layered in quirky, fully realized characters, highly developed yet believable tech, a captivating story, and one more thing that catapulted it into the stratosphere: the best, most humane AI I have ever read.

As it turned out, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was actually the first in the Wayfarer series. A Closed and Common Orbit, the second book in the series, is, if anything, even better. It follows a couple of characters from the first novel as they make their way through an adventure planet side, while simultaneously taking us through the harrowing childhood of one of those characters.

Chambers is firing on all cylinders here. The environments are richer and more complex, the stakes higher, the space opera aspects of the story a ridiculous amount of fun. We are introduced to a wider, more varied assortment of alien civilizations, and each one is fully realized.

The journey Chambers began with AI in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is amplified here. She writes AI characters that are just as real, and just as humane, as the humans and alien lifeforms that populate the novel. A Closed and Common Orbit has a lot to say about the nature of sentience, about what makes someone who they are. Chambers writes with warmth and confidence, but also with a questioning intelligence, about family structures, friendships, and gender roles. All this, and a rollicking nail-biter of a story.

In case it’s not obvious, I loved this novel! The third book in the series, a stand-alone called Record of a Spaceborn Few, is already on my TBR stack.

SONG LYRIC—HEAVEN (BETTER BE SOMETHING SPECIAL)

Writing

We haven’t spent a night apart
Since I first took your hand in mine
Our lives forever joined together
Like grape vines intertwined
We’ve driven down some bumpy roads
Without a light, without a map
The two of us we always knew
We’d somehow make it back

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

Images of days long past
Like breadcrumbs floating in wine
Surface now and then
Golden moments out of time
Every time I lose myself
In long forgotten memories
And travel back on through the years
Your smiling face is all I see

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

BOOK REVIEW: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Reading

Grady Hendrix is the author of several well-received horror/comedy hybrid novels, including My Best Friend’s Exorcism, We Sold Our Souls, and the recent The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I first got to know him through Paperbacks from Hell, his deep dive into the glorious world of 70s and 80s paperback horror fiction, for which we share a profound love.

I have a confession, which is that, despite having been told for years that Hendrix is the real deal, Horrorstör is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve had it on my TBR stack for a while, and my son kept telling me how much I would love it, but there are just so many damn books in the world, and so little time. Finally, I read that Horrorstör had been optioned for a movie, so I pulled the trigger. I’m so glad I did!

Horrorstör takes place over the course of one night in an Orsk Furniture Superstore in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Orsk is patterned after Ikea, right down to the individual room settings and the nearly pathological design of the path through the store. The morning shift has been arriving to unexplained nightly damage—broken furniture, smashed glasswork, disruptions in the pristine store layout. In order to solve this riddle and get the store back on track, three store employees (and two other employees with their own agenda) stay the night to discover just what’s going on.

The novel begins as a relatively light-hearted romp. Hendrix has an easy way with humor, as he allows it to occur naturally from the characters we meet, and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not forced. He takes his time, letting us get to know, and mostly like, these people. They’re three dimensional, not stock, cardboard characters. Then darkness, and madness, descends, and let me tell you, Hendrix can write the hell out of all-out horror. Once he starts twisting the screws, shit gets real. He has a masterful sense of pacing as he puts these characters I’ve come to identify with through the wringer. This is scary stuff.

That’s the basic set-up, but it’s not what makes this such a memorable novel. See, Hendrix is either one helluva researcher, or he’s spent a lot of time in Ikea, because his attention to detail, his sense of place, the specificity he brings to the story, is what puts this book over the top. Horrorstör looks and feels like an Ikea catalog, from the shape of the book, to the illustrations that pepper the pages and become increasingly macabre the deeper you delve. He puts you in the store with such a solid, concrete reality, that when the supernatural mayhem begins twisting and shredding that reality, it’s that much more jarring. Everything about Horrorstör, every little detail in book design, adds a richness to the novel.

On a personal note, when I say Hendrix gets the details right, that extends to the Cleveland setting. As a Cleveland native and fan, I get annoyed when writers are sloppy about describing my city. Hendrix is dead on. I could hop in my car and drive to the Orsk store.

Horrorstör was published in 2014, and I’m sorry it took me this long to read it. Get it now, before the movie comes out, and be prepared to be thoroughly frightened, and thoroughly entertained.

BALLAD—DARILYN, BEGIN AGAIN

Writing

In my head, I’ve always heard this one as a strummy but driving folk song, something like what the Indigo Girls might do.

On an island not on any map, on a rocky, windswept bay,
sits a rough and tumble harbor town that goes by Devil’s Cay.
The fishing boats set out each day with morning still a dream,
and straggle back long after dark, another day redeemed.
The longshoremen and sailors come with pockets full of pay
to Darilyn’s, the finest tavern in all of Devil’s Cay.
They come to drink, and talk, and fight, and tell a tale or two.
They come to laugh at stories that were old when they were new.
But every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

They say it happened long ago, when she was just a girl,
and a sailor name of Captain Jim was the center of her world.
Jimmy was a handsome lad, and many a lady tried,
but the slender waif named Darilyn was the apple of his eye.
He pledged that they would marry on the day she turned eighteen,
but all that ended one March night when the wicked sea turned mean.
Jimmy saved a dozen men, then saved a dozen more.
As the clock struck ten his ship went down and Jimmy was no more.
Now every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

Tonight there’s something magic in the air at Darilyn’s,
and all eyes are upon her as the clock approaches ten.
Now the door swings slowly open on a ghost from days long past,
and Captain Jim says, Darilyn, I’ve made it home at last.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim.
With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

BOOK REVIEW—THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS

Reading

I first discovered Charlie Jane Anders through her work as editor-in-chief of io9.com, one of my favorite websites. I found her to be at all times smart, thoughtful and passionate. When I started reading her short fiction, all three of those descriptors also applied there (her story “6 Months, 3 Days” won a Hugo), with the addition of an unfettered imagination. I loved Ander’s first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. Many others did, as well—it won a Nebula, and was a Hugo finalist.

I think her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is even better.

The novel is set on a planet called January, where the straggling remnants of a generation ship from Earth landed long ago. January is a tidally locked world, with a permanent day side and night side. Humans live in two ancient, decaying, politically-at-odds cities, both clinging desperately to the only habitable area along the sliver of twilight between day and night. Outside the cities are dangers untold, including a blood-thirsty race of monsters that may not be what they seem.

Anders excels at world-building and creating fully realized, believable characters. Each city has a history, a complex web of politics and culture that instantly drew me in. The main human characters are equally complex and compelling, their relationships and friendships in constant flux, their joys, heartbreaks, loves, and terrors fascinating to follow. I felt for, and at times rooted for, each of them in turn. There’s palace intrigue, death-defying action, big set pieces, and small, achingly real moments.

Notice I said the main human characters. Where I think The City in the Middle of the Night really ignites, where I think it just may become a new classic, is in its description of an alien race that shares the planet. Talk about world-building. This is world-building on a grand scale that brought to mind, for me at least, Dune, or perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness. Anders treats us to an entire, densely thought-out, thoroughly alien civilization, describing, in an organic way, their technology, their culture, their art forms.

This is bravura writing, and I can’t wait to see where Anders takes us next. Which, speaking of, The City in the Middle of the Night ends on an open-ended note that makes me hope she returns to January sometime in the future.

SONG LYRIC—I’D RATHER GO CRAZY (THAN NEVER GO ANYWHERE AT ALL)

Writing

I can’t play or sing a lick, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a few songs recorded by various singers/songwriters. This one hasn’t been, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m keeping my hopes up it will happen some day.

when I first met Tracy she was walking the ledge
outside my window, toes over the edge
she tapped on the glass, threw me a smile
that was a little bit crooked, a little bit wild
she stepped through the window like she did it all the time
said, hey how are ya, thanks I’m fine
or so I’ve been told–then she started to laugh
and that’s what I remember when I think about our past

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapeze
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
you know, I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

we talked that night for what seemed like hours
but when she left I didn’t know a damn thing about her
can’t really say that night was the start of some big love
but that crazy girl with the crooked smile fit me like a glove
Tracy had her problems, I knew that going in
I could live with her addictions as long as I was one of them
I get high on life, she’d say, but smiling when she said it
there’s a lot of turns I’ve taken wrong, but I never will regret it

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapese
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
I believe I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

she’d disappear for days on end, never tell me where
huddle in the corner, say, you know life’s just not fair
from the giddy heights of ecstasy to the bottom of her soul
Tracy was the pilot, but she never had control
I knew one day her dance would take her too close to the edge
I knew one day her fingertips would slip off from the ledge
I knew our time together was a trip that had to end
but I didn’t know how much it hurts to lose your dearest friend

Tracy used to walk the tightrope, and swing on the trapese
and if she said she did it, well, that’s good enough for me
I never learned to tap dance and ten floors is just too tall
but I think I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

SONG LYRIC: HELLBOUND

Writing

This is my attempt at a sort of noir song lyric. I always pictured Johnny Cash singing it.

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
high whine of sirens following me
back country roads, gravel and dirt tracks
carry a full load, U-turns and switchbacks

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
trying to get by but nothing is free
across the state line, getting lost in the shadows
biding my time, retreating from battles

travel at night, sleep through the day
stay out of the light, finding my own way
keeping in touch with the man with the money
playing my hunches, sometimes it’s funny

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
no one can follow what no one can see
doing my work, each job as it comes
wherever they lurk, just keep myself numb

slipping through shadows, feeling the fear
nothing worth loving, nothing held dear

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town
hellhound, holed up in hell town

TWO SF&F AUTHORS I DON’T HEAR MENTIONED ENOUGH ANY MORE

Reading

My coming of age, reading wise, happened throughout the 70s. That’s when I went from discovering The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot during the same week in my junior high library to becoming the hardcore science fiction and fantasy fan I’ve been ever since. A lot of the authors responsible for my lifelong journey are relatively household names, at least for folks who read within the genre. I’m thinking about golden age writers like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Sturgeon, Bester, Farmer, and Pohl (to name just a few off the top of my head). And the “new wave” writers who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s, like Ellison, Silverberg, Malzberg, Dick, Russ, and Tiptree, Jr.

But a couple of the authors that really set my imagination ablaze, that solidified my love for the genre, don’t get talked about much these days. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. I’m sure someone will read these two names and say, “Hey, that’s my favorite writer!” That would make me ridiculously happy, because these are authors I truly love.

R.A. LAFFERTY
Neil Gaiman once said that, for a while at least, Lafferty was the best short story writer in the world. I couldn’t agree more. His stories, many of which I read as I worked my way through the Orbit anthology series, are whimsically strange, wonderfully quirky, and all-together incandescent. I can tell a Lafferty story, even one I haven’t read before, within one or two sentences. He takes complex ideas, outrageous but humane characters, and startlingly original language, and whips it all together into something that should never work, but always does. He also wrote a bunch of excellent science fiction novels, some historical novels, and one of the finest books about Native American life I’ve ever read, Okla Hannali. But it’s his short stories—shaggy dog folk tales, darkly comic, undefinable—that should be remembered and celebrated.

TOM REAMY
If R.A. Lafferty isn’t as well know as he should be, Tom Reamy really isn’t as well known as he should be. Like many other great writers, Reamy started out in fandom, including editing a well-regarded fanzine that made the final Hugo ballot more than once. When he started writing fiction, the stories came fast and excellent—he sold his first two on the same day. Altogether, Reamy wrote just thirteen stories and one novel. The stories—Twilla, San Diego Lightfoot Sue, The Detweiler Boy, Beyond the Cleft, and the others—are darkly imaginative, the literary stepchildren of Harlan Ellison by way of Ray Bradbury. Speaking of Bradbury, Reamy’s debut novel, Blind Voices, concerns a sinister traveling circus traveling through 1920s rural Kansas. It’s a richly imagined work that pairs nicely with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Sadly, Reamy died from a heart attack at just 42, which at least partly explains why more folks don’t know about him. Search his stories out, he’s that good.

Trapped in Lunch Lady Land

Writing

In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.

Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.

The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.

So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:

Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.

Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:

Here I am doing a school visit!

A Few of My Favorite On-Going Series

Reading

Because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and because a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers struggle to contain their imaginations to just one volume of work, I have read, and continue to read, quite a few book series. It could be worse, actually. I don’t read much epic, heroic fantasy, where series often seem to run into double digits.

And, for the sake of this post, I’m only going to mention series that are on-going, with new books still to come. If not, this would be a very different list, with trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials, and series like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels.

In keeping with this narrow focus, here are a few of the on-going book series I love. In some cases, I’m all caught up and waiting impatiently for the next book. For some of these, I’ve started the series recently and have a wonderful backlog to work my way through.

WAYWARD CHILDREN, OCTOBER DAYE and INCRYPTID, all by SEANAN MCGUIRE
The only thing more impressive than McGuire’s prolificness (Is that a word? If not, I’m going with it anyway.) is her talent. Her Wayward Children novellas have redefined portal fantasy. The story of what happens to children when they come back from fantasy worlds, each book is a perfect gem of lyrical storytelling, unfettered imagination, and sometimes heartbreak. There are currently five books in the series, with a new one coming this year. The October Daye novels are urban fantasy at its best, set in a beautifully realized San Francisco, at the intersection between the human and fairy worlds. October herself is a private investigator with one foot in each camp. I’ve read the first four of the twelve novels so far published, and I can’t wait to read more. The InCryptid novels are also urban fantasy, and concern a family of cryptozoologists, who for generations have been trained to keep the peace between humans and cryptids, the mythological creatures who live secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, among us. I recently read the very first novel in the series, Discount Armageddon, so I have at least four more to go to get caught up.

HAP AND LEONARD by JOE LANSDALE
Hap and Leonard are best friends and running buddies. They’re not exactly criminals, although they sometimes stomp all over the line, and they’re not exactly lawmen, although they work as private investigators in later novels. Through twelve novels, several novellas and a bunch of short stories, Hap and Leonard cruise the backroads of East Texas, getting into scrapes and raising hell. The books are violent, scatalogical, and uproariously funny as long as you’re not easily offended. There are also three seasons of an excellent Hap and Leonard TV series now available on Netflix.

SANDMAN SLIM by RICHARD KADREY
Sandman Slim is part human, part demon, and all badass. This series is set in a Los Angeles alive with all manner of monsters, angels and demons, with detours to heaven, hell, and all points in between. Kadrey has a real gift for magic and mayhem, and he backs it up with a deep knowledge of religious mythology. Stark (Sandman Slim) is a deeply flawed and altogether original character, and his cast of supporting characters are all equally engaging. The next Sandman Slim novel debuts this year.

These are just a few of the series that make me happy. You really can’t go wrong with any of them!

BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST SUPPER BEFORE RAGNAROK BY CASSANDRA KHAW

Reading

I first became aware of Cassandra Khaw and her novel The Last Supper Before Ragnarok on Twitter, where folks whose opinion I respect, many of them authors, raved about it. Turns out they were absolutely right!

One thing, though, right off the bat. Reading this novel was a sometimes disorienting experience for me. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of the story, and there were things I had to puzzle out, connections I had to make, character motivations I had to work to understand. As it turns out, that’s on me, because The Last Supper Before Ragnarok is actually the third novel in a trilogy, Gods & Monsters. I’m generally (okay, always) a stickler for reading a series in order, so I have no idea how I missed this. I blame my Kindle, where I tend to skip over the stuff I’d probably notice on a book cover.

Also as it turns out, it didn’t really matter, because I loved this book. What’s it about? Glad you asked! A ragtag group—a quasi-immortal chef who keeps dying but can’t stay dead, a god killer, a snake woman assassin, and a prophet, along with the entire internet personified as a young woman—road trip in search of the father gods, the ancient deities, in order to stop ragnarok. Apocalyptic mayhem, and several meals, ensue.

The real star here is Khaw’s prose. Thrilling, muscular, violent and anarchic, her language shimmers and shouts. There are laugh-out-loud moments of humor that punctuate the propulsive plot, and quietly heartbreaking moments as well. The Last Supper Before Ragnarok travels some of the same ground as Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods, but it definitely does not suffer in comparison. This novel could not be different in outcome or execution. Khaw is a writer of uncompromising skill, and she’s distilling real magic here.

I wish I had read this trilogy in correct order, but make no mistake, the first two novels will be heading to the top of my TBR pile.

MORE GREAT NOVELS THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF

Reading

There are a lot of novels I’ve discovered, either by accident at the suggestion of others, that I think deserve a wider audience. Give these books a read, and give them some love!

LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS by Kirsten Bakis
I found a used paperback copy of this in a little bookstore in Greenwich Village, and was intrigued enough by the cover to take it home. Best decision ever. As it turned out, this was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, so it’s not exactly unknown, but I never hear it mentioned. Isolated deep in a forest compound, a cruel but brilliant surgeon creates a race of monster dogs. Through Island of Dr. Moreau style experimentation, surgical butchery, and genetic engineering, the dogs gain human intelligence, the ability to speak and walk on their hind legs, even prosthetic hands. When the dogs overthrow their masters and make their way to New York City, they are at first the talk of the town. And then they are not. This entire novel is steeped in an at times unbearable melancholy, yet I couldn’t put it down. A true original.

THE DOLPHIN PEOPLE by Torsten Krol
A group of Germans near the end of World War II, enroute to a remote jungle outpost, crash land in the Amazon jungle and are taken in by a stone-age tribe. Whatever you think happens next based on that beginning, I guarantee you are wrong. This is the damnedest fever dream of a book, chock full of hallucinatory passages, nazi proselytizing, and a bravura sequence involving genital surgery that had me shaking my head in wonder. Pure, unadulterated lunacy of the finest kind. Look, just read this book and see for yourself.

TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
The very first piece of fiction by Margo Lanagan that I read was the short story “Singing My Sister Down“. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and go find it online, I’ll be here when you get back. It’s a revelation. Lanagan has several collections of short stories, all of them excellent. Her novel The Brides of Rollrock Island is a stunning take on the selkie myth. But I digress. Tender Morsels tells the story of a young woman (a girl, really) who escapes her brutal life in a small village by living in her own personal fantasy world, where evil can’t reach her. That’s the bare bones, but it doesn’t come close to describing the wonders Lanagan achieves here. She writes about tough subjects like rape, abortion, and even quasi-beastiality in the heightened, evocative language of fairytales, walking a tightrope I think few authors could pull off. Lanagan is one of our very best writers, and Tender Morsels is one of my favorite novels ever.

DR. RAT by Willaim Kotzwinkle
In some circles, William Kotzwinkle may be best known as the author of the E.T. novelization. For others, it’s his novel The Fan Man, or his short story collection Elephant Bangs Train. Not me. For my money, his best work, his crowning glory, is the batshit crazy Dr. Rat, the story of the world-wide uprising of animals against humans, narrated by an insane laboratory rat. Part sustained howl against animal experimentation and the subjugation of animals by people, part war story as whales, elephants, and all the creatures of the wild go on the attack, and all of it filtered through Dr. Rat’s extraordinarily skewed intelligence. One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. There are moments here where Kotzwinkle’s language is positively incandescent.