Pre-order: ‘Monsters, Movies & Mayhem’ – oh my!

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The upcoming dark fiction anthology ‘Monsters, Movies & Mayhem’ — which includes 23 new tales by the likes of Jonathan Mayberry, Steve Rasnic Tem, Fran Wilde and Rick Wilber, among others (including yours truly!) — is now available for pre-order. 

It’s edited by the great Kevin J. Anderson and the students of his publishing class and I am thrilled to be one of the contributors.

The book is due out in July and, having had a chance to preview it as part of the proofreading process, I highly recommend interested readers plan to pick it up — it’s a great read.

My own story, “Flickering Dusk of the Video God,” sees a has-been horror movie director return to his Rust Belt hometown after his father’s sudden death to discover strange happenings surrounding the old man’s video rental shop. It was written not long ago as part of a speculative fiction workshop held at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN) on Bainbridge Island, under the guidance of novelist/essayist/ teacher Kathleen Alcalá

Again, I’m stoked and grateful to be part of the TOC of this awesome anthology and can’t wait to hear what readers think of the offerings!

As always, thanks for reading.

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Time Enough At Last – 2

Not long ago I posted a list of all the books I’d read so far this year and people seemed to enjoy the recommendations. And, as our lives have continued to include substantial mandatory downtime of late, I’ve been making even more progress on my to-read pile and thought I’d share with you the books I’ve read since that first post. Again, my favorites are marked with an asterisk. Take care of yourselves and be safe out there. And, as always, thanks for reading.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury*
The Ruins by Scott Smith*
The Rats by James Herbert
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Farmer by Jim Harrison
A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison*
The Mist by Stephen King
Exorcisms and Ecstasies by Karl Edward Wagner*
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn*
The Reaping by Bernard Taylor*
X,Y by Michael Blumlein*
Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco*
Walk on the Wild Side by Karl Edward Wagner*
The Woman Lit by Fireflies by Jim Harrison*

Congrats, PseudoPod – 700th episode is a winner

One of my favorite podcasts marked a major milestone recently when PseudoPod released their 700th episode — and for the event they’ve featured my first favorite author: Edgar Allan Poe himself.

Those who know me IRL, as the kids say, will be well aware of my left arm’s Poe tattoo. The man is the Alph and the Omega of modern horror fiction, and John Bell’s narration of Hop Frog is stellar. I sincerely recommend lovers of spooky stories give this a listen.

And, for those who like what they hear, I’ve included links below to just a few of my other favorite episodes of this truly awesome podcast. In a world of increasingly few paying venues for quality short horror fiction, PseudoPod is nothing short of essential and deserving of any and all support you can offer.

I was fortunate enough to have a story of my own featured — Till the Road Runs out, as read by Dave Robison — and I’m beyond proud to have contributed to the program.

Just a few of my faves:

512: Boys by Damien Laughlin 
526: The Great American Nightmare by Moaner T. Lawrence 
572: Deconstructing Hillsdale by D. Morgan Ballmer 
594: Mysterium Tremendum by Laird Barron (first of three installments) 
498: The Only Ending We Have by Kim Newman 
651: The Coven of Dead Girls by L’Erin Ogle 
530: The Madness of Bill Hobbs: A Tale of Snuff Movies and Cannibal Cults by Sean Pearce 
560: Where the Summer Ends by Karl Edward Wagner 
612: Mofongo Knows by Grady Hendrix 
539: The Fear by Richard Harland 
593: The Woman in the Hill by Tamsyn Muir 

I’m a longtime listener, so obviously I could recommend a number of great particularly great episodes. But I think any of those are solid bets for those less familiar with the show’s epic back catalog. Enjoy! And, as ever, thanks for reading.

Splendid isolation: Review culture writer picks five stories worth staying in for

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.

A wise man told me, when I was very young, “You will never have ample free time and expendable income simultaneously.”

Regarding my own life, he has been primarily correct (so far, anyway): When I’m flush I’m frantic, and when available I’m bust. Such is life, I suppose.

Except during a pandemic.

Now we find ourselves in the unique (though by no means enviable) position of having some mandatory down time and simultaneously there are fewer things than ever to splurge on (if you’re fortunate to have excess funds at all, that is).

What are we to do?

Fortunately, we live in an age when home entertainment is relatively cheap and better than ever. We can access virtually unlimited movies, shows and books without stepping foot outside. So, in an attempt to keep you from pulling a Jack Torrance on your loved ones — all work and no play and all that — I sympathetically submit the following five stories as my personal picks for engaging escapism.

Read the list here. 

Westneat’s on a roll, folks

Perhaps my favorite newspaper columnist working today, Danny Westneat, of the Seattle Times, has been on something of a  roll of late, turning out some really great pieces about the immediate and longterm impacts of the current pandemic.
He’s a writer whose work I’ve long enjoyed and who, I think, is using the comforting and familiar platform of a regular, recurring POV column to the utmost effect right now.
A lot of “news,” especially now, is just opinionated commentary or obviously partisan talking points in masquerade. But again and again Westneat’s writing shows that equation working in reverse — objective facts as filtered through one man’s perspective — in the best possible way. I highly recommend checking out his stuff regardless of where you live.
Some especially good recent columns:

From March 27: “Will we go back? From Seattle’s homeless ’emergency’ to airline fees, the coronavirus is making a new reality 

From April 3:‘Essential’ but unwanted: Coronavirus reveals another American double standard

You can view a full list of his pieces here. 

 

 

 

Time Enough At Last

Like so many others, I’ve been taking advantage of our ongoing mandatory downtime to catch up on some reading and thought I’d share a few recommendations with those of you looking for a delightful diversion from our current shared nightmare.

So, to that end, here is a list of every book I’ve read so far this calendar year, in no particular order, with my particular favorites annotated with an asterisk.

Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Best Horror of the Year Vol. 1 (Ellen Datlow, editor)*
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist*
Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis*
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix*
The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll*
Crash Code (Quinn Parker, editor)*
The World Jones Made by Philip K. Dick
Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall*
Childgrave by Ken Greenhall*
The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn
Best Horror of the Year Vol. 2 (Ellen Datlow, editor)*
Gringos by Charles Portis
Books of Blood Vol. 4-6 by Clive Barker*
Elizabeth by Ken Greenhall*
Incubus by Ray Russell
Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

My top five authors well worth rediscovering

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.

The death of Charles Portis — famously press-averse author of “True Grit,” whose sparse but distinctive fictional oeuvre earned a cultish fanbase of champions — has had the bittersweet virtue of at least returning his name to the forefront of conversation and perhaps enticing would-be readers to investigate his works.

Obviously “True Grit,” in which a firebrand spinster recounts the time she, at age 14, set out to avenge her father’s murder with the help of a drunken, irascible one-eyed lawman, is the most prominent title to bear his name (the first film adaptation won John Wayne his only Academy Award). But, having read all five of the man’s novels, I must proclaim “Masters of Atlantis,” his 1985 penultimate offering, as my personal fave.

Seriously though, they all merit your time.

The flurry of press surrounding his passing, however, got me thinking about a few other authors in need of a cultural signal boost, names I’m regularly forcing onto friends who make the mistake (?) of asking me for reading recommendations.
Here, then, are my five picks for writers who deserve to be rediscovered.

Remember, a good book never goes out of style, and it’s still not too late to join the fan club.

1. Joan Samson (1937-1976)

Samson exploded onto the scene in 1975 with her first and only novel “The Auctioneer,” which, after a brief period as a bestseller, quickly vanished and was all but forgotten. She died of cancer shortly thereafter, while supposedly working on a second book.

That we will never read that one, or any others she might have penned, is a legitimate pop-culture tragedy because “The Auctioneer” is flawless — a tale of authority, community, conformity, and a harsh rebuttal to the back-to-the-country movement of the day that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King, told in a style reminiscent of the precise, immaculate language of Shirley Jackson.

In it, the rural farming town of Harlowe begins a slow and insidious metamorphosis beneath the rule of the titular newcomer. Warning the local yokel sheriff about the crimes of the modern world going on just outside the town limits, he organizes a weekly auction to raise money for deputies, an ambulance, some small municipal improvements. Everyone in town is happy to kick in unwanted stuff and gets a chuckle out of selling their junk to naive city folks for more than it’s worth.
It goes so well the Auctioneer prepares another sale.

And another.

And then another.

Every week, the sheriff and his new, heavily armed deputies come around with a truck seeking “donations.” The won’t take no for an answer.

I think the term unputdownable is silly and overused, but this book (now once more available in paperback thanks to Valancourt Books) is absolutely unputdownable.

2. John O’Brien (1960–1994)

His most famous novel, 1990’s “Leaving Las Vegas,” later adapted into a movie of the same name (starring Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue) was his first — and also the only one published in his lifetime. The story of a resigned alcoholic on a suicidal bender was sadly autobiographical, and O’Brien killed himself shortly after learning his book would be made into a movie (his father called it his suicide note).

Subsequently, three additional novels (one completed by his sister) and a long short story were released, of which my personal fave is 1996’s “The Assault on Tony’s,” which follows a group of upper middle class L.A. alcoholics who barricade themselves inside their favorite bar, intent on waiting out the race riots ravaging the city as intoxicated as possible. But then the power goes out. And they start running low on booze.

It’s a timely, claustrophobic tale of prejudice, loyalty, and addiction that exemplifies the best of O’Brien’s gritty, realist style.

3. Harry Crews (1935-2012)

A razor-sharp, authentic voice speaking from hard-earned experience about life on the fringe of America, this guy lived his literature, much of which is now sadly out of print and rather hard to find.

Crews’ life and writings have righty become synonymous with so-called “Grit Lit” movement, stories generally focused on the hardscrabble lives of blue-collar or working-class people in rural places, and draws heavily from Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah (though he supposedly did not like to be labeled as a “Southern writer”).

He’s a seedier Larry Brown, the trailer park’s answer to William Faulkner.

I recommend 1972’s “Car” (in which a man arranges to incrementally eat an entire car in a fame-seeking publicity stunt and as a way to symbolically escape his family, who own the largest auto wrecking yard in the state) or 1998’s “Celebration” (which sees a vivacious young woman become a kind of domineering messiah to the geriatric residents of a sleepy retirement community).

4. Karl Edward Wagner (1945–1994)

Best remembered as the tireless and boundary-pushing editor of the genre-defining “Year’s Best Horror Stories” series for DAW Books, co-founder of the Carcosa publishing imprint (which brought the works of Manly Wade Wellman to a larger audience), and creator of a series of stories featuring the immortal Conan-esque swordsman Kane, it is Wagner’s short horror fiction that inspires my awe.
He originally trained as a psychiatrist before turning to writing full time, and it shows in his complex (but accessible) and layered stories, populated by vivid, authentic characters. In his work there is a simultaneous feeling of the extemporaneous and the inevitable.

Primarily, his non-“sword and sorcery” (a term he reportedly hated) stories take place in contemporary settings, the most often reprinted being the H.P. Lovecraft homage “Sticks,” which provided the inspiration for the lattice-type structures used in “The Blair Witch Project” and the first season of “True Detective.”

Most of his work is out of print and criminally hard to find, but if you can acquire a copy of either of his solo collections (1983’s “In A Lonely Place” and “Why Not You and I?” from 1987) it would be an unforgivable mistake to not give it a read.

5. Joel Lane (1963–2013)

A British novelist, short story writer, poet, critic and anthology editor, Lane’s work lives in two worlds. His short fiction is dark urban fantasy with touches of the surreal, his two novels are solidly mainstream: a portrait of a disturbed rock musician, a survivor in the aftermath of a disfiguring attack.

All of it is highly recommended.

His prose is haunting, scenes and characters sketched with a poet’s eye for detail and language, an incongruously keen sense of humor. His writings return again and again to the inherent isolation of urban living, delusions, illness, hauntings real and imagined, addiction and injustice.

In terms of short stories, I highly recommend “The Lost District and Other Stories” from 2006 and 2012’s “Where Furnaces Burn” (which won the World Fantasy Award for best collection).

His first novel, “From Blue to Black” (2000), is a very different but equally powerful experience.

Shades of story: My picks for flicks to screen to honor Black History Month

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review, January 2020

Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day are still to come, but arguably the most important tradition of the year’s second month begins first thing on the first, and lasts all month long.

Yes, it is once more African-American History Month, February being the page on the calendar boasting the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Though it’s not without detractors (Morgan Freeman famously noted, “I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history.”) and many have questioned the concept of confining the celebration to a single month, as opposed to more enthusiastically integrating black history into mainstream education throughout the rest of the year, in light of continued criticisms levied at premiere showbiz awards for a lack of diversity, and being a time when the discussion about race and representation in Hollywood is becoming increasingly complex, it’s inarguably at the very least a good excuse to vary up your viewing.

Here then are my picks for five underseen flicks that prominently feature African Americans in front of or behind the camera — or both.

1. ‘Buck and the Preacher’ (1972)

Directed by Sidney Poitier

The directorial debut of Poitier, who also co-wrote and stars alongside Harry “King of Calypso” Belafonte, sees him playing the titular Buck, a former soldier leading a wagon train of African Americans fleeing Louisiana and looking to make new lives away from the South in the immediate wake of the Civil War. He’s tough, smart and pragmatic, bartering with American Indian tribes along the way for the right to hunt their buffalo and ensure his charges safe passage through treacherous territory.

Meanwhile, a gang of violent white men have been hired by vengeful plantation owners back in Louisiana to raid the wagon train and either scare the so-called “Exodusters” back to Louisiana or kill them trying.

Belafonte plays Willis Oaks Rutherford, a crafty character claiming to be a preacher but who acts more like a crook, and the incomparable Ruby Dee is Bucks’s wife Ruth. The trio set themselves to doing whatever it takes to get the wagon train to safety in this unusual boundary-breaking western that features a soundtrack composed by jazz great Benny Carter and the musical stylings of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Don Frank Brooks.

Though not an immediate success, and to my mind not sufficiently known today, this is a truly unique cinematic offering that unquestionably deserves more attention.

2. ‘Ganja & Hess’ (1973)

Directed by Bill Gunn

An experimental horror film. A dark and dreamy fantasy. A strange love story.

Though (quite fairly) best know for being the hero in “Night of the Living Dead,” Duane Jones gives perhaps his most artistically demanding performance in this, one of the most singular vampire stories of all time.

Written and directed by playwright/novelist/actor Gunn (“One of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time,” according to Spike Lee) the film follows the exploits of anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Jones), who becomes a vampire after his unstable assistant (Gunn) stabs him with an ancient cursed dagger. Green makes short work of his assailant and, while he’s adapting to his new existence, gets a surprise visitor. He falls in love with his assistant’s worried widow, Ganja (Marlene Clark), who quickly learns Green’s dark secret — but is more interested than wary.

It was respected immediately, winning the critics’ choice prize at Cannes, though it remains comparatively less discussed than other, less worthy vampire movies.

Interestingly, though he’d reportedly insisted, ”The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film,” Gunn finally accepted the project after decided to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction — and this was way before Anne Rice rose to fame or Abel Ferrara made the point just as stylishly (though much less subtly) in “The Addiction.”

3. ‘Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror’ (2019)

Directed by Xavier Neal-Burgin

For the nonfiction film fans, and at least slightly related to this list’s previous entry, this documentary examines the history of African Americans in horror films — both their role in the making of and their depiction therein.

It features many movie clips, and interviews with Jordan Peele, Tananarive Due, Keith David, William Crain and a lot more, while taking a look back that starts with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” and leading up to examine titles from the marquees of today.

In the early decades, people of color in horror were servants at best, maybe comedic sidekicks, and mostly weren’t present at all. The 1960s and ’70s saw as many codified stereotypes as broken boundaries. Then the great whitewashing of Hollywood in the 1980s forced black people largely out of the genre altogether. But the ’90s and early days of the new millennium were comparatively a pretty good time for African Americans making and being featured in scary movies — the doc hits all the highlights: “Candyman,” “The People Under the Stairs,” “Attack the Block,” etc. — and theater screens of today are even more likely to boast the names of people of color in the credits.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Robin R. Means Colem — and I cannot recommend it enough. Even if you don’t love scary movies, this incredibly specific view of pop culture history is remarkably revealing and offers a fascinating way to reconsider the evolution of race relations in America.

4. ‘Miles Ahead’ (2015)

Directed by Don Cheadle

Cheadle was born to play Miles Davis, and though the rest of this free-form biopic doesn’t quite live up to his performance it is a unique and compelling vision worth seeking out.

The story skips around in time a lot while depicting Davis’ attempts to get his career back on track following a period of inactivity and heavy drug addiction in the 1970s, the lasting effects of his troubled marriage to a former dancer (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and his strange (fictional) friendship with a journalist (Ewan McGregor) who, after forcing his way into Davis’ house, eventually accompanies the troubled genius on an adventure to recover a stolen recording of the man’s most recent compositions.

Personally, I like a little more authenticity in my biopics (I’m glaring at you, too, “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but, according to Cheadle, his approach to the film was not to produce a biopic at all but create plausible, largely fictional vignettes of Davis’ life that interpreted the creative process Davis used in the composition of his music.

Viewed through that lens, in the spirit of improv jazz and artistic experimentation, I got to say I dig this movie. It’s worth seeing for Cheadle’s performance alone, and the soundtrack is predictably wonderful, acting itself as a kind of double portrait of Davis since there are both contemporary songs by more recent artists inspired by him and his own original compositions included.

5. ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ (1995)

Directed by Carl Franklin

I can understand why this neo-noir mystery is not often ranked as one of Denzel Washington’s best; the guy had a lot of hits. However, in terms of unique latter-day noir flicks and fresh takes on tried-and-true tropes, this one deserves a spot in any conversation.

It’s Los Angeles, circa 1948, and Washington’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a World War II veteran, has been unfairly laid off by an aircraft manufacturer. Desperate for money, he’s introduced by a bartender friend to a shady white guy (Tom Sizemore) looking for some help tracking down a missing dame, see?

She (Jennifer Beals) is assumed to be hiding somewhere in the black part of town, and by the way is also the girlfriend of a wealthy man who was the favorite in the ongoing mayoral race before suddenly dropping out. The bounty is only $100, but he needs the money so Rawlins becomes a private investigator — despite having no real training or qualifications — and begins scouring the juke joints along Central Avenue for the lady.

This is noir, so of course there’s more going on than meets the eye. But the movie, based on a novel by Walter Mosley, is a delightfully idiosyncratic example of the genre.

As one critic said, “Hard-boiled fiction is a been-around genre about done-that individuals, so the pleasant air of newness and excitement that ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ gives off isn’t due to its familiar find-the-girl plot. Rather it’s the film’s glowing visual qualities, a striking performance by Denzel Washington and the elegant control Carl Franklin has over it all that create the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.”

Given noir remains one of the whitest of subgenres, perhaps of this season, too.

 

New frontiers of cyberpunk horror: Enter ‘Crash Code’​

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My latest published short story is one of the 27 new, original tales featured in the recently released cyberpunk horror anthology “Crash Code,” edited by Quinn Parker and out now from Blood Bound Books.

The TOC is a stellar lineup, and I’m thrilled to be a part of the team and to be working with BBB again (“Burnt,” which appeared in the third volume of their awesome “DOA” series, was my first pro sale), a publisher with a special place in my twisted little heart.

My own story, “The Fate You Are,” is the anthology’s concluding tale, though some of the collection’s true stars include, among others, Kristopher Triana, K. Trap Jones, T. Fox Dunham, KJ Moore, and John McNee.

If you’re comfy in that wonderfully awful place where sic-fi and horror mingle, I highly suggest checking out this collection. With so many talented writers of various styles included, you’re bound to found at least a few tales that resonate with you.

Thanks for reading, all!

Take care.