I’ve talked about this before on this blog, but I once spent several years as the main artist and designer for Stampers Anonymous, a well-regarded rubber art stamp company. The owner, Ginny (who continues to be a friend to this day) has an artistic sensibility, and a love for the weird, that dovetails nicely with mine. I loved designing stamps for her, and probably did hundreds throughout the years.
The rubber stamp community is passionately creative, and one of their favorite people is illustrator and collage artist Nick Bantock. He’s probably most famous for the Griffin and Sabine series, but he’s done many other art books as well. His collage work often utilizes rubber stamps, which is part of what endears him to stampers.
So I’m in Ginny’s stamp store one day, and she hands me Bantock’s lavish, oversized hardcover art book, Artful Dodger, and tells me to look at the collage in the center spread. Lo and behold, there, in the center of the collage, is one of my stamps. Probably the proudest moment of my stamp design career. Check it out below. That’s my artwork, the stamp featuring a quote about art, there in the middle.
Stephen King excels at…well, just about everything. But for me, there are two things he often does that makes him one of my favorite writers. First, he take a single, often simple idea and examine all the ramifications of it, look at it from all sides. And second, he brings small towns, both the people and the place, to evocative life. Not just the idyllic, kids playing on the town square, young couples strolling Main Street while eating ice cream cones scenes, but also the evil and rot underneath, the dark undercurrents roiling beneath sunny skies. Richard Chizmar, King’s co-author on the first novel and the sole author on the second, shares those attributes with King, writing seamlessly with King on Gwendy’s Button Box, and continuing the story in Gwendy’s Magic Feather with deep skill and confidence.
Gwendy’s Button Box puts a modern spin on the Pandora’s box myth, as a mysterious stranger gifts young tween Gwendy with a magic box—a box capable of making her life better in immeasurable ways, but also capable of causing world-wide disaster and misery. King and Chizmar take this single, simple idea and gallop away with it, making it a complex meditation on morality. Gwendy is a richly sympathetic character, and we the readers feel her exhileration at the twists and turns her life takes, but also the confusion and pain when she makes potentially catastrophic decisions. All the while she and the box circle each other like prize fighters, and the fact that Gwendy never knows what the box wants from her, and the mysterious stranger gives her no guidance outside of assuring her that she’s the right person to have the box, gives the novel its power and intensity.
Meanwhile, all of this takes place against the background of small town Castle Rock life, with a gallery of other characters who feel absolutely real. The authors also drop Easter eggs from other King novels set in Castle Rock, and you’ll find yourself smiling as you discover them.
Gwendy experiences tragic loss in the course of Gwendy’s Button Box, but in the end proves that the mysterious stranger was right—she’s a more that capable steward of the box.
Gwendy is gratefully relieved of the box at the end of Gwendy’s Button Box. In Gwendy’s Magic Feather, Gwendy is a thriving thirty-seven year old best-selling author, and now congresswoman, when the mysterious stranger, and the box, comes back into her life. If anything, the stakes are even higher given Gwendy’s position, but for me the novel truly hits its stride when Gwendy leaves Washington D.C. for Castle Rock. Back in familiar territory, Chizmar spins a captivating story, and I enjoyed Gwendy’s Magic Feather just as much as the first novel.
Both Gwendy novels are quick, comfortable reads. You fall into their easy rhythms like being enveloped by a favorite quilt. This is not a knock at all. I love comfort reads, and both novels abundantly qualify. I read recently that a third Gwendy novel is on the way, and that’s news to be celebrated. Beautifully work, gentleman.
I originally planned to write this for Thanksgiving, but I was on a tight deadline for a short story I wanted to submit, and, well, better late than never (I hope).
So. I became a reader the first week of seventh grade when I walked into the school library and discovered the small science fiction section. That day I took home The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Once I exhausted all the SF in the school library (with roughly 200 Andre Norton novels) I graduated to my local library, which had a much more robust science fiction section. Over the course of several years I read them all, alphabetically, starting at the top left and working my way right and down. Just about all my first, favorite authors came from this time in my life.
In high school and college I branched out, discovering Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Tom Disch, John Irving and Tom Robbins (see, I don’t only read genre), and many others.
I continued to read many of these authors through my adult years, and still do. To this list I added a bunch more go-to writers whose work I cherish and will always read: Joe Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard Kadrey, Andrew Vachss, Dorothy Allison, Katherine Dunn, Thomas Harris, Michael Chabon, Robert F. Jones.
The point of all this, and I do have one, is that as I read over the list of books I’ve read this year (yes, I keep track, I’ve kept track since 1996—don’t judge), I realized that many of the authors on the list are ones I discovered fairly recently, over the past few years. These are the writers who are now firmly on that go-to list, the ones I tell others about. These are the new (to me) authors I am thankful for:
SEANAN McGUIRE— The first novel I read by her was Every Heart a Doorway, and it was a revelation. Happily, she is so prolific that it will take me years just to read through her back catalog, not to mention each new novel.
CHUCK WENDIG—I discovered Wendig first through his website and on Twitter. I was thrilled to realize that his fiction is just as original, just as satisfying. Wanderers is a stone cold masterpiece.
PAUL TREMBLAY—Quite simply, the finest new horror writer working today. Head Full of Ghosts was Tremblay throwing down the gauntlet.
TAMSYN MUIR—I struggle even to describe Muir’s writing style, which is as incandescent as it is challenging. Read Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, and marvel. I see a pile of Hugos and Nebulas in her future.
SARAH GAILEY—Gailey’s literary output has been so varied, and of such an insanely high level, that it’s a little intimidating. Westerns with hippos!
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES—I’ve only read two of his novels so far, Mongrels and The Only Good Indians, but that was enough to make me a permanent, passionate fan. Like McGuire, he’s got a large back catalog for me to enjoy.
GABINO IGLESIAS—Another author I discovered first on Twitter. With Coyote Songs, Iglesias invented a new genre, barrio noir, that is both harrowing and captivating.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS—Science fiction that sings. All The Birds In The Sky is unlike anything else out there, complex, exciting and full of heart.
JOE ABERCROMBIE—The premier writer of epic grimdark fantasy. Abercrombie writes battle scenes better than anyone else today.
In this challenging, maddening year, I am thankful that when I feel like howling into the void, there are always these writers, and many others, there to take me somewhere else, at least for awhile.
Harrow the Ninth is the second novel in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, following Gideon the Ninth, and I need to get this out of the way first thing—if you haven’t read Gideon yet, go do that first, I’ll wait (and here’s my review of Gideon if you’re interested: https://davewritesanddraws.com/2020/02/27/book-review-gideon-the-ninth-by-tamsyn-muir/). Everything that happens in Harrow is directly related to what happens in Gideon, and honestly, I think Harrow would be a tough read if you tried to tackle it first.
Assuming you’ve now read Gideon (welcome back to the blog!) you know that Muir is a writer of rare and miraculous skills. Harrow the Ninth continues the story started in the first novel, and if anything, the plot is even wilder, more convoluted, more open to multiple interpretations, with more layers of reality. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is the main character here—she joins a small group of god-like Lyctors, and God himself, as they prepare to face Resurrection Beasts, revenants of dead planets intent on annihilating them. She’s ascended to Lyctorhood as well, but she’s a broken, incomplete Lyctor, and to top it off, one of the other Lyctors keeps trying to kill her.
Sound confusing? It is, truthfully, and for me that’s part of this novel’s immense charm, because the plot is in part a vehicle for Muir’s marvelously inventive language, her high-wire act of storytelling. She alternates chapters detailing Harrow’s present-day story, written expertly in second person, with flashbacks to scenes from Gideon written in third person, but those scenes do not match up with the original story. Are they distorted memories, or something more complicated, more insidious?
As in Gideon, Muir uses words and phrases like her own personal playthings. Her language is dense, scintillating, intense, downright baroque at times. She mixes necromantic bone, blood, and spirit magic with hard science fictional concepts, presents an arresting and wholly original concept of an afterlife, introduces dead characters who may be alive and living characters who may be dead, and invites us to consider deeply serious meditations on the concepts of self, sacrifice, and grief. If I’m making this sound like reading Harrow the Ninth is too much work, it’s far from it. This novel is a rollicking good time, often uproariously funny, with thrilling action set pieces, and imagination to burn. The dialogue, as in Gideon, is often snarky, profane and utterly contemporary. None of this should work, yet it all works, beautifully.
Also like Gideon, the last quarter of Harrow the Ninth delivers a whole series of shocking surprises and emotional gut punches.
I have never read anything quite like these novels, and I can’t wait for the third novel in the trilogy. I feel like Muir is an utterly original artist of uncompromising talent.
When I started this blog a couple weeks sly of a year ago, I knew I wanted to talk about three things: Writing, drawing, and reading. The writing and drawing were easy—here’s what I’m writing and have written in the past, and here’s what I’m drawing and have drawn in the past.
The reading part of the blog, however, has been a fun exercise in discovering just what it was going to be about. I’ve written about books, and even song lyrics, that have influenced my life, about my go-to authors over the years, about my favorite opening lines. The part I’ve come to enjoy writing most, however, are reviews of the books I’m currently reading.
There seems to be an ongoing discussion in the Twitterverse on every facet of book reviews. Way more discussion than I expected, truthfully. Some of you folks have definite opinions. Anyway, here are some thoughts on reviewing books, from my perspective.
HOW I CHOOSE THE BOOKS I REVIEW—Here’s the thing. I read, on average, twenty five to thirty books per year. Wish it could be more, but that’s what I have time for. So the books I read are the books I truly want to read. The genres I love most are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I read those the most. I don’t take a lot of chances, which means I’m absolutely missing out on some great reads, but it is what it is. I have eight or ten currently-writing authors whose new books I always read, and whose back catalogs I’m working my way through. I have a bunch of other authors I’ve been reading for years, sometimes decades, and if they write something new I’ll read it, and sometimes delve into their back catalogs as well.
DISCOVERING NEW AUTHORS—Okay, look, it’s not like I never read authors new to me. I follow a bunch of favorite authors on Twitter, I read Tor.com and io9 daily, and I belong to a few Facebook groups that talk about books. If a writer I respect suggests an author or book, that carries a lot of weight with me. Over the past couple years I’ve happily discovered newly favorite authors this way, including Chuck Wendig, Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, and Stephen Graham Jones, just to name a few.
HOW I WRITE REVIEWS—I write the kind of reviews I like to read. What this means, most importantly, is I don’t do plot recitations. I talk a little bit about the author and my reading relationship with him or her, maybe how I first discovered them. I mention the barest of bones as far as what the book is about. And then I talk about the things that truly matter to me when reading a book—language, pacing, characters, imagination, setting, description—the things that make a book come alive. Is this the best way to review a book? No idea. Some readers seem to enjoy reading them, and I love writing them, so that’s good enough for me.
BAD REVIEWS—Simple. I don’t write them. At this point in my life I know what I like, and with my limited available reading time, I choose carefully. My track record is pretty good. In just under a year of writing reviews, I think I’ve only read one book that I didn’t care for, and chose not to review. It’s an easy decision for me. Writing is hard work, and I’d rather life an author up than put them down.
And that’s pretty much it. Now, when friends ask me, hey, what are you reading now? I can point them to my blog. Not that I won’t tell them as well, because I’m always happy to talk about books.
My first novel, a funny fantasy adventure for middle-graders titled Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was published by CBAY Books in 2014. It sold a few hundred copies, I had a fancy book signing at my local Barnes & Noble, and, most importantly, I did a bunch of school visits. I read from the book and answered the kids’ whipsmart questions (Kindergartners: “Do you have a cat? I have a cat!” 5th graders: “How much did you make from your book? Did you get an advance?”). Those visits are the reason I will never stop writing.
Then, a few weeks ago, a funny thing happened that I did not see coming, although in retrospect I probably should have. Trapped In Lunch Lady Land officially went out of print. I was a little bummed, at least at first, but eventually decided to look at it as an opportunity to enter the exciting, confusing world of self publishing.
My first step was talking to my publisher for some much needed advice. She suggested, first, that I create new cover art for the new edition. Her second piece of advice, which I’ll be forever grateful for, was to take the Self Publishing Class from author P.J. Hoover (@pj_hoover on Twitter). Great class, covered all the basics. At the end of those three hours, I was confident I could pull it off.
Based on what I learned in the class, and my own research, I decided to publish through KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing. I created new cover art on my I-pad with my handy dandy Apple Pencil. KDP has templates available in a variety of sizes. I’ve been drawing by hand my entire life, and I’m not a pro with the pencil yet, but I’m really enjoying learning to use it. I laid out the interior pages of the new print edition in InDesign, which I’m very familiar with. Developing the Kindle e-book edition was trickier. The first edition of Lunch Lady Land didn’t have a Kindle version, so this was new territory. Even with what I learned in the class, I had a few false starts, a few missteps. I tried to make use of my print layout, which potentially should work, but I kept losing all the formatting. Very frustrating. Eventually I downloaded KDP’s free app, Kindle Create, and that did the trick.
So, now I have both print and Kindle versions of the new edition of Trapped In Lunch Lady Land available. Will I sell some new copies? Who knows? That’s not what’s important. I just like knowing that the book’s out there in the wild. And maybe some kid will read it, and enjoy, at least for a little while, spending time in a world I invented.
If you’re curious, here’s a link to the new edition. If you have a kid, or know a kid, they just might like it.
I wrote this song for local Cleveland group The Advocates, let by singer/songwriter Paul Senick. To this day it’s one of my favorite lyrics of all I’ve written.
GIVE IT BACK
Joanie’s husband beat her like a drum for nineteen years, Held her ego hostage in a cage of pain and fear. Bruises heal and bones mend, but what about the soul, His fists and words just beat her down, and each one took its toll. Joanie suffered silently, she never made a scene. She kept it bottled up inside, a never ending scream. Until the night her husband woke to the smell of gasoline. As Joanie struck the match she said, give it back to me.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife. Give it back, give it back to me, Give it back, give it back to me.
Patty Anne was barely ten when her father came to call, Creeping like a prowler in the darkness, down the hall. You won’t tell a soul he said, here’s what it’s about. I brought you into this world and I can take you out. Patty suffered silently, she never made a scene. She kept it bottled up inside, a never ending scream. Until the night her father woke to the smell of gasoline. As Patty struck the match she said, give it back to me.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife.
Give it back, give it back to me, All the years and all the tears you took from me. Give it back, give me back my life, How’s it feel to dangle from the sharp edge of the knife. Give it back, give it back to me, Give it back, give it back to me.
I first discovered Gabino Iglesias in the writing community on Twitter. I was immediately impressed with his voice—funny, passionate, sometimes pissed off in the best way, and, above all for a writer still finding his way, incredibly supportive of other writers. He regularly doles out wise advice, and occasionally the much needed exhortation to put ass in seat and get writing.
Then buzz started building, and authors I respect began talking about Iglesias’ novel Coyote Songs. Holy hell they were right. This dark, dangerous border noir, with a delirious mix of incandescent language, bravura storytelling, gritty realism and supernatural horror absolutely blew me away. Iglesias is a writer in complete control of his craft, and there are scenes in Coyote Songs I will never forget, even if I wanted to.
Zero Saints is an earlier Iglesias novel, but the things that inspired me in Coyote Songs are on full display here. The brutal, beautiful language, the harrowing violence, the heady mix of myth, religion, and magic—it’s all here. This short novel follows one young low-level drug dealer trying to survive the mean streets of East Austin after a run-in with a group of heavily-tattooed, possibly demonic gangsters. Zero Saints reads like hardcore crime fiction, but the touches of supernatural horror, while not as pronounced as in Coyote Songs, are very much in evidence. Iglesias’ gallery of characters, from a Russian hitman to a flamboyant cowboy of an enforcer, all the way to a surprisingly human-like dog, are well-developed, quirky individuals. The plot moves at a breakneck pace that never lets up. His descriptions of Austin are far removed from what tourists at SXSW experience, but it feels lived-in and authentic.
Much like with Coyote Songs, I found myself occasionally visiting Google Translate while reading Zero Saints, particularly with some of the prayers to Santa Muerte included in the novel. Iglesias moves fluidly from English to Spanish and back again, but I never lost the meaning or the story. If it’s not clear, I loved this novel!
Most folks, here in the states at least, know the bare bones of the Donner Party story—that a wagon train made up primarily of the Donner and Reed families, on the way to California became trapped by vicious winter weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Snow bound, starving, some members eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes the bones of that story and through meticulous, exhaustive research, makes you feel every back-breaking mile. She shows you the camaraderie and hopefulness, at least in the beginning, but then the danger, the extreme discomfort, the fear for the unknown, the gnawing hunger. All of it is made shockingly real. Alma excels at introducing many of the real historical characters that made up the wagon train, mixing them so expertly with characters of her own invention that I found myself repeatedly returning to Wikipedia to learn who was real and who was not. She gives every character, real or not, their time to shine, weaving in their backstories, showing us the friendships that develop along the way, the halting possibility of love, but also the petty jealousies and hate. There are no real heroes, but there are acts of heroism. The villains of the story are multi-faceted, never hackneyed cardboard characters. The Hunger reminds me, in some ways, of Emma Bull’s Territory, in the way Katsu mixes deep historical research with the supernatural. (and if you haven’t read Territory, which combines the very real characters that populated Tombstone, Arizona, with a supernatural undercurrent, please do.)
If Katsu had stopped there, she would have had one hell of a historical novel, brought to life with bravura language and vivid description. But no, she does not stop there. Instead, Katsu takes this already thrilling story and drapes it with a ratty, diseased shroud of supernatural horror. That horror begins to seep into the lives of the settlers early in the novel, and then escalates, unstoppable, suffocating, ratcheting the tension and dread to an unimaginable degree. There are scenes unimaginable brutality, and scenes of quiet terror, and Katsu handles both with aplomb.
The Hunger is first-rate historical horror. I loved this novel!
I wrote this a long time ago, after my first visit to New York City. Reading it now, I realize it sounds like I don’t like the city at all, but the truth is it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I was playing a character here, imagining the lives of some of the people I watched streaming past me.
HIT THE TOWN
my old man drove me as far as the station but he wouldn’t get out of the car shook my hand and palmed me a twenty told me again I was straying too far every small town punk wakes up one morning with big city lights alive in his dreams but I guess we all have to find out for ourselves those big city lights aren’t as bright as they seem go on now, boy, your bus is waiting I know this is something you think you have to do but take this advice along for the ride someone gave it to me when I was a punk just like you
you’ve got to hit the ground with both legs churning shine like a comet with both ends burning sweat and strain ’til the weight gets lighter keep coming back, like a punch drunk fighter and most of all, don’t forget this, Jack sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
Grand Central Station at three in the morning is something no boy from Ohio should see so many lost people huddled together so many dead eyes following me I sat on a bench to wait out the daylight wondered again how I’d come to this place an old woman tugged at the hem of my coat she said, don’t worry son, we’ll save you a space
you’ve got to hit the ground with both legs churning shine like a comet with both ends burning sweat and strain ’til the weight gets lighter keep coming back, like a punch drunk fighter and most of all, don’t forget this, Jack sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
now here I am gazing from fifty floors up at the lights of the city, completely alone thinking that maybe those lights aren’t so bright thinking that maybe it’s time to go home I’m tired of running just to keep up I need to sit down and rest for a while I’m tired of thinking each handshake a challenge it’s been so damn long since I wanted to smile
Grand Central Station at three in the morning is something that no longer bothers me much my eyes look away when voices are raised I don’t get too close, I’m afraid to be touched It’s hard to admit that my father was right but there comes a time when you must face the facts I won a few battles but I sure lost the war sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back sometimes when you hit the town, you know the town hits back
A confession—I don’t read enough poetry. In truth, I’m a little intimidated by it, which is funny, because I write a bit of it, but there you have it. I’m also not quite sure how to review poetry, as it’s such an intimate, personal thing. At its best, I think poetry is a kind of communion between the writer and the reader, and as such, is review-proof in a way.
Now forget about everything I just said, because Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection, by Marie Casey, is absolutely wonderful. It is intimate, and it is deeply personal. It’s not horror, per se, but much of it is horrific. There are scenes that are reminiscent of body horror, the very words flayed and shredded. As you can imagine from the title, blood is often mentioned. In fact, it binds the pages of this book together. Casey’s language is raw, visceral. Much of the book is centered on relationships, on their dissolution and destruction, on the painful things we do to each other in the name of love and sex.
Casey leaves a lot to the imagination—these poems, some just fragments, few of them named, are open-ended and ripe for interpretation. I absolutely love her imagery, the way she uses language to open and probe emotional wounds.
Bloodhound, A Poetry Collection is not a light read, and may be too much for the faint-hearted. I can tell you that, based on this book, I’ll read anything Casey writes.
I discovered Joe Lansdale and Hap & Leonard at the same time, when I found a battered copy of Bad Chili at my local Half Price Books. I took it home and dove right in, finished it that evening, and headed back to Half Price Books the next day to pick up the other three or four Lansdale novels they had. In the many years since then, I’ve eagerly snapped up each new Hap & Leonard, while simultaneously working my way through Lansdale’s intimidatingly large back catalog. These days, when folks ask me who my favorite author is, I usually answer Lansdale. (On the days I don’t answer Lansdale, I answer Neil Gaiman, but I’d say that’s pretty good company to keep.)
Over the years we’ve gotten to know Hap Collins and Leonard Pine pretty well, watched them settle into middle age. Actually, settle is the wrong word. They’ve entered middle age kicking and screaming, cussing and fighting, and if they’ve reached some level of maturity, it’s been hard-won and doesn’t always stick. They may give a potentially violent situation some thought before engaging (Hap more than Leonard), but they aren’t afraid to fight the good fight if it’s the right thing to do. Hap and Leonard have both found love, and both have lost it.
Through the various novels and novellas in the series, we readers have been able to follow the twosome through just about their entire adult lives. The one thing missing, except for the occasional stories they would tell, was their early lives. That began to change in 2017 with Blood and Lemonade, a collection of loosely connected short stories that delved into Hap and Leonard’s early years. The book was a revelation, and included their very first meeting, a truly epic night that fits neatly into their wild and wooly mythology.
Now Lansdale has gifted us with OfMice and Minestrone, subtitled Hap and Leonard The Early Years. If anything, this one is even better. Lansdale is one of our very best short story writers, and every story here is a gem. By seeing Hap and Leonard as teenage boys, we’re given an intimate glimpse of the men they will become. OfMice and Minestrone features everything Lansdale is best at, including lovingly described hand to hand combat, real, flesh and blood characters, the best dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard, and sometimes scatological, always laugh out loud humor.
One more treat—Lansdale describes several meals in the course of the book, and his daughter Kasey Lansdale has contributed a bunch of recipes based on those meals. They all sound amazing, and I’m planning on trying several.
For fans of Joe Lansdale, and particularly fans of Hap and Leonard, Of Mice and Minestrone is a must read.
The title of Joe Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings was inspired by the words Louis XIV had cast on the cannons of his armies—Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for “The last argument of kings.” A declaration of war, in other words. Like the first two novels in the epic First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is about war, in all its permutations. Battles between massed armies, one-on-one to-the-death clashes, the political machinations that guide the various skirmishes, and finally violent internal battles with characters’ very souls at stake.
If you’ve read the first two novels in the trilogy (and if you haven’t, you really should before reading Last Argument of Kings, as taken together the three books tell a cohesive, continuing story) you’ll be happy, or not so happy as the case may be, to see many returning characters. Logan Ninefingers, the Bloody-Nine; his companions from Before They are Hanged, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezel dan Luthar; Superior Sand dan Glokta; Ardee West; The Dogman; and many others, all of them traumatized to greater or lesser extent at the beginning of the novel.
I don’t like to do plot recitations—I’m not fond of them myself, and they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. Instead, that list of characters above brings up the first of three things I do want to talk about here, three of the many things that make Abercrombie, to my mind, the preeminent author of grimdark fantasy working today. I’m speaking, of course, about his characters. Love them or hate them, Abercrombie’s characters are fully realized people with deep backstories, deeper flaws, strengths and weaknesses, love and pain. They are prone to self reflection, although not always honest about it. And each and every one has taken a rough and violent road to get where they are now. Abercrombie’s physical descriptions can be brutally devastating, but I think he loves them all.
Next up, world-building. The world of the First Law trilogy is extravagantly imagined. Abercrombie has worked out everything in granular detail. The settings, whether a rocky mountain stronghold or a richly appointed palace, a desolate, forbidding forest or a king’s bedchamber, are lovingly described. The political intrigue, at the national, local, and personal level, feels authentic. It feels right. There is magic in the world of the First Law, and like everything else, Abercrombie’s magic systems are internally consistent and well thought out. Magic in this world has weight and consequences. It’s not to be trifled with.
As mentioned, Last Argument of Kings is about war, about battles large and small, epic and intimate, and this is where Abercrombie truly excels. When describing sweeping, large scale battles, it never feels like he’s just moving chessmen impassionately around a board. You never forget that these are living, breathing, dying people, that these are individuals, not mindless hordes. When it comes to descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, Abercrombie makes you feel every punch, kick and stab. The only other author I know with a comparable gift for the mechanics of fighting, for the raw emotion and sheer physicality, is Joe Lansdale.
Last Argument of Kings is a dense, massive, brutal work of art, and there’s more. Besides the First Law trilogy, there are currently three other books set in the world of the First Law—Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. A new trilogy is also on the way, with A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace already published. So much Abercrombie goodness!
I drew both of these for my Redbubble.com shop, but they got flagged. Weird, as a search for “Yoda” delivers more than 4,000 returns, and “Lord of the Rings” more than 5,000, but it’s not worth fighting about. Anyway, I loved working on both of these, and I learned a little more about using the Apple pencil with each one.
I originally wrote this as a guest post on another blog, but I never posted it here.
The youngest of my three kids, a daughter navigating her junior year of college during this pandemic, is halfway to turning 21 as I write this. Which means we no longer have any teenagers in the family, let alone high school kids. I’m not really sure how that happened.
My wife and I are both readers, and we naturally shared books with all our kids from a young age. But there’s something special, downright sacred and altogether delightful, about sharing the perfect book with your kids when they’re in high school. That’s the age where, if you get lucky and choose wisely, if the stars align, the book and the child will connect in miraculous ways. It’s been my experience, at least, that some books we read in high school become touchstones, favorite texts we reread and treasure. This is not an exact science, every kid is different, and I certainly had some missfires. But when you get it right it’s uniquely satisfying.
Here are some of the books where I got it right.
CRUDDY by Lynda Barry
I said above that every kid is different, and not every book is right for every kid. Cruddy, an illustrated novel, is a case in point. Cruddy is not for the faint of heart. The story of Roberta Rohbeson, who lives in “the cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house on a very cruddy mud road” is filled with horrific violence, rampant drug use, and pain. It’s also one of the most deeply humane, heartbreaking yet surprisingly hilarious, and truly original novels I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever read Barry’s weekly comic strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, then you can already guess that her illustrations enhance the story in brilliant and unexpected ways. For mature older teens.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA by Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out of Carolina is basically fictionalized autobiography (her book Two or Three Things I Know for Sure covers the same material in a nonfiction format), and much like Cruddy, it deals with difficult subjects, including child abuse and incest. Set in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s, Bastard tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always moving story of Bone Boatwright as she navigates adolescence through troubling waters. Bone, a stand-in for Allison, is the kind of rare protagonist you will cry for, howl in rage for, and fall in love with. This book is sometimes hard to read, but Allison’s incandescent language never allows you to look away. Read this, and then read Two or Three Things I Know for Sure to meet the real people behind their fictional counterparts, photos included.
HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman
This is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time (sorry, Lord of the Rings) and I suggest it to pretty much everyone. Maybe you only know it from the not particularly good movie version of the first volume, The Golden Compass, or the better, recent Hulu adaptation. Maybe you’ve only read The Golden Compass, and not the other two volumes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Here’s the thing—the trilogy gets better as it goes. By the end, it’s a complex examination of morality and religion, all wrapped up in some of the most beautiful fantasy world building ever commited to paper. Every character is memorable, every scene exquisitely rendered. There’s breathtaking adventure and genuine sorrow. Some readers have taken issue with Pullman’s treatment of organized religion, and I’ve seen charges of racism leveled concerning some characters. This is fertile ground for discussion, just one more reason I find the sharing of books so rewarding.
BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon
McCammon is known chiefly, I think, as a writer of intelligent thrillers and apocolyptic horror (Swan Song belongs on the same shelf with Stephen King’s The Stand). This is something else entirely—part murder mystery, part the exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures of a twelve year old boy and his friends in small town Alabama in the early 60s. Boy’s Life is infused with a childhood sense of wonder, nicely spiced with moments of magic realism. The reality of southern racism and poverty is not shied away from, but it’s tempered with a genuine but clear-eyed feel for life in that particular time and place. Quite simply, one of the best coming of age novels ever written.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
By the time this novel came along, I only had one child still in high school, my youngest daughter. I handed it to her the moment I finished it. In Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire asks a deceptively simple yet profound question: What happens to all the children who enter portals to other worlds, and then come back? We’re introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, a sanctuary for those children whose parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, dissapointing world after having left the magic behind. There are now five novels in the Wayward Children series, each one a small wonder of whimsical, ravishing storytelling.
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones
This one is a little different. Blood Sport was published in 1972, and a found a battered paperback copy a few years later, when I was in high school. It blew the top of my head clean off. Fast forward to my son’s high school years, and I couldn’t wait to share it with him, but…but, Blood Sport is extreme. It’s the fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, chocked full of magic realist imagery and audacious language, but also brutal violence, explicit sex, and some truly squirm-worthy scenes. The time had to be right. When he was sixteen, he and I joined his Scout troup for a father-son canoe trip on the French River delta in Canada, and I felt like the planets had alligned. It was indeed the perfect time.
BONUS: THREE RECENT BOOKS THAT ARE GREAT READS FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS
WANDERERS by Chuck Wendig
A big, meaty, doorstop of a novel, with big, meaty ideas. The story of a world-wide pandemic with echoes of The Stand and Swan Song, but very much its own thing. Heroic, flawed, altogether believable characters, and science that seems frightenly prescient.
GIDEON THE NINTH by Tamsyn Muir
I can’t really sum this novel up better than Charles Stross does in his cover blurb: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Just to add—so many skeletons! A gonzo masterpiece.
WHEN WE WERE MAGIC by Sarah Gailey
When We Were Magic revolves around six female friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidently, at the hands of one of those friends. Gailey excels at navigating the complexities of friendship, and her descriptions of how magic works are breathtaking.
A couple of months ago I bought an I-Pad and an Apple Pencil. I realized quickly what a fun and versatile drawing tool I had with the combination, and an idea was born. Introducing Fan-tasm, a redbubble.com shop featuring artwork inspired by iconic books and movies. I’m working fast and loose, and really enjoying the process.
Here’s the link to my shop:
And here are a few samples of the kind of work I’m doing for this. I plan on adding lots more designs in the coming days. I’m also more than happy to take suggestions, or even custom orders. Drop me a line!
As I write this it is Labor Day, 2020, here in Northeast Ohio. Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, we had plans for the day. A little yard word early, then a socially distanced backyard cookout later with my mom and stepdad. Nothing big, but something to look forward too.
Then we woke up to rolling thunder that rattled the windows, lightning that lit up the roiling grey clouds, and slashing rain that refused to let up. By noon there were two ducks swimming in the newly formed pond behind my house. All of our plans, modest though they were, ruined.
And…I don’t care one little bit. We spent the day holed up in our comfy little sunroom, watching the sky light up and listening to the rain beat against the windows. I munched on snacks and drank iced tea (take away my writer’s license if you must, but I’ve never liked coffee).
Mostly, I read. A lot. I usually read at night before bed for the most part, so this daytime reading was luxurious, glorious. I made headway in the enormous, wonderful novel I’m reading now (Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie, review to follow eventually) without worrying about what time it was, what I should be doing rather than reading. It rained, and I read, and it was the best day I’ve had in quite a while.
Through the course of eleven novels and one short story, James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, has been through a lot. The nephilim (half human/half angel) has fought demons in hell’s arena, spent some time as Lucifer himself, and died and been resurrected more than once. Back home in L.A. he’s tangled with ghosts, monsters, and more demons, sparred with God and gods older than that, worked for and against L.A.’s magical underground the Sub Rosa, and dealt with Hollywood scumbags who are sometimes the biggest monsters of all.
Ballistic Kiss, the eleventh novel in the Sandman Slim series, finds Stark at a crossroads, besieged with self doubt and not sure where he now fits in with his circle of friends and loved ones. Besides his usual crew—Candy, his monstrous on-again off-again love; Janet, purveyor of donuts, possible new love; Kasabian, human head on a mechanical body; Vidocq, immoral alchemist; and Carlos, bartender at the Bamboo House of Dolls—Stark must deal with the continuing angelic war in heaven, an infestation of murderous ghosts in L.A.’s Little Cairo neighborhood, and the Zero Lodge, a group of high-stakes adrenaline junkies.
As you may surmise from the above description, Ballistic Kiss, and every Sandman Slim novel, is an anarchic thrill-ride through the streets of L.A., with side-trips to hell and the Room of Thirteen Doors. Kadrey excels at the very many things that make the Sandman Slim books such glorious fun. He writes believable, fully-realized characters, whether they’re fully human or not. His action sequences and descriptions of violence are ballets of mayhem. No matter how crazy the scene, you always know what’s going on. His sense of place is second to none—L.A. is almost a secondary character, lovingly described in all its opulence and and decay.
Kadrey’s world-building started out strong from the beginning, and he’s expanded on it with each novel, from L.A.’s magical underworld to heaven, hell, and places in between. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of christian mythology and angelology, and he uses it to expand his world in surprising and satisfying ways.
It’s almost embarrassing how much I’ve loved all the Sandman Slim novels, and Ballistic Kiss is no exception. If you haven’t read them, now is a good time to get caught up, as Kadrey has announced that the next one will be the last.
I’m participating in a flash fiction competition where we’re given three prompts—a genre, a location, and an object—and must write a short story of 1,000 words or less. For the first challenge, my prompts were historical fiction, swamp, and pillow. I’m really happy with the result:
The swamp was different in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry, waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitos.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. He was six years old. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then a gator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah could not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, lost themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’ grandmother she tended to. It was down filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.
Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.
They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.
They parted ways a little north of Lima. They were staring at a wall of trees that went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” The preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.
If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitos, great clouds of them.
When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah felt his own eyes well up.
They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.
Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked.
“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”
“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama.” Judah was soon asleep himself.
I finally broke down and got an Apple pencil to use with my iPad and, wouldn’t you know it, I love it. I can tell there’s going to be a steep learning curve to really figure out everything it can do, but here’s my first attempt. All things considered, I’m happy with it.
Here are a couple more examples of the poetry I was writing when I first started writing poetry. Is it good? Nope. But it started me writing, and I will always be happy about that.
THE KINGDOM OF CADABRA
In the air beneath the surface of the golden lined clouds, In the turning, brewing breezes like a falling silver shroud, In the burning of the thunder, in the freezing of the night, Lies the Kingdom of Cadabra, spreading far to left and right.
It’s a land where time is twisty, where years are but a jumble, Where gypsies do their dances while they prophesize and mumble. It’s a land where fire-spitting rockets fly alongside brooms, And atoms vie the esper force in many-crystaled rooms.
Pilgrim prudes and pagan gods coexist so nicely, And beggars beg for glowing gems, expensive, even pricely. The royals frolic merry at their happy final fling. In the burbling wine of apricots fly dinosaurs with wings.
Witches brew and white-foamed beer mix in velvet lined seas, And pinkly glow the elephants, with tiny, dimpled knees. Schooners fit with milky sails fly ever swiftly by, In the Kingdom of Cadabra, in the softly glowing sky.
A wrought iron fence, tall and black, encloses the graveyard— a twilight boundary between different worlds. The gate is rusted. It comes open at a touch with a flurry of fine red dust. Slippery with dew, the gravel path is unkept, overgrown, nearly invisible beneath the moonless night. It twists and turns into the rustling grass, into obscurity. Shadows flit between trees in imitation of lost spirits, or spirits in imitation of shadows. The headstones are islands of marble in the low-lying sea of mist. Crimson-veined and distant, monuments in the corridors of time. In the far corner something moves. The mist parts to reveal a woman bent over a grave, the angled planes of her shoulder like atrophied wings, taut against the faded fabric of her coat. She lays wilted flowers beneath a wood cross, not marble like the others, and falls against it. The mist swirls, closes.
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
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.
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.
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.
Iwrote 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.”
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.