Summer of McGee Marathon – 1: Intro / Rules / The Lay of the Land

John D. MacDonald is one of the most iconic figures in the history of American literature, but in a strangely invisible way. 


He sold some 70 million books in a career that straddled the middle of the so-called American Century (he was publishing from 1945 to 1986) and pioneered the use of a consistent “title theme” in a series, which is still pervasive in today’s mystery/thriller genres, in his towering masterwork: the Travis McGee books (subsequent examples include Sue Grafton’s “alphabet series,” Janet Ivanovich’s “number series,” and James Patterson’s Alex Cross books’ use of nursery rhymes).

The McGee books use colors:
1. The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
2. Nightmare in Pink (1964)
3. A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
4. The Quick Red Fox (1964)
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
6. Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965)
7. Darker than Amber (1966)
8. One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966)
9. Pale Gray for Guilt (1968)
10. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
11. Dress Her in Indigo (1969)
12. The Long Lavender Look (1970)
13. A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971)
14. The Scarlet Ruse (1972)
15. The Turquoise Lament (1973)
16. The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
17. The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
18. The Green Ripper (1979)
19. Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
20. Cinnamon Skin (1982)
21. The Lonely Silver Rain (1984)

Admittedly, MacDonald is perhaps even better known as the man behind “The Executioners” (later turned into an excellent film, twice, as “Cape Fear”) and several other standout standalone novels (including 1977’s “Condominium,” which holds up as just as socially relevant today as when it was first published).


Yet, for all this success and prolific output, MacDonald’s legacy is bereft of the cult of personality that so often forms around similar seminal writers of the era. My bookworm buddies, many much better read than myself, are at best vaguely familiar with the man. But why? 

Some of this, I believe, can no doubt be chalked up to the critical indifference to mystery/thriller novels in MacDonald’s day (an attitude which some say continues — though certainly to a much lesser degree).

Also, there have been comparably few film adaptations of his work (“Cape Fear” being, obviously, a huge exception). In fact, I’m aware of less than 10 films based on MacDonald’s oeuvre (more on them and the surprisingly controversial McGee movies in a later post).

Imagine the difference it would have made to Stephen King’s visibility if De Palma’s “Carrie” had not come out — or if it had, and it had not been such a masterpiece — just two years after the book was published. The second King adaptation came just a few years later — and it was Kubrick’s “The Shining”! His status as an icon was fixed early on. How much did the “Fight Club” film do for Chuck Palahniuk as a pop culture figure, or “Gone Girl” for Gillian Flynn? Were those books successful on their own? Of course. Would the books still have been excellent and important works? Yes. But would those authors themselves be so well known? I submit they would not. 


Additionally, MacDonald is unique in that I’m aware of no other writer that is so wildly and often praised by other writers. 

Check out the back of some of the McGee books and you’ll find gushing blurbs from Jonathan Kellerman (who called the series “among the finest works of fiction ever penned by an American author”) Dean Koontz, John Saul, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, Donald Westlake and Sue Grafton, among others. 

In the 1982 edition of his nonfiction writing guide “How to Write Best Selling Fiction,” Koontz has a chapter — “Read, Read, Read” — wherein he lists and summarizes the importance of authors he says have “defined popular fiction.”

The MacDonald section, one of the chapter’s longest, in part reads thusly: 

“The one and only … Personally, I would even go so far as to say that he is the best American writer of his generation, or that at least there is no one better, and I would not stand alone in making that assessment, either … I know of no other writer more universally admired by other writers than is John D. MacDonald. Even the academic-literary crowd admits a sort of shamed-faced fascination with MacDonald’s fiction … [He] is one of the few living American writers about whom I would say, unequivocally ‘He will be widely read a hundred years from now.’” 


Now, this blog series is certainly not going to do much for improving MacDonald’s status among younger readers today — and that’s OK. It’s mostly for me (and, I guess, you since you’re still here) that I’m doing this.

I began reading the McGee books on the first day of spring and hope to be done by the first day of fall, if not sooner. I’ll be posting here every two or three books with summaries and thoughts, as well as intermittently with related ideas (the McGee movies, my ideal cast/crew for a better McGee movie, facts about MacDonald himself, etc.), so check back regularly.

I bought all 21 books in used bookstores around Seattle and Portland over the course of the last year or so, including most notably Backstreet Beat on Bainbridge Island, William James Bookseller in Port Townsend, Tacoma Book Center and, of course, Powell’s Books in Portand.

Also, this project has two primary sources of inspiration I should note up front: 

1. Will Errickson, author of the amazing Too Much Horror Fiction blog (, whose smart, fun writing style and thorough research has long been a source of great enjoyment for me. 

2. Raymond Gendreau, owner/operator of the aforementioned Backstreet Beat, who was a teacher of mine when I was enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle (RIP) and once told me about a great summer he spent reading the McGee books while commuting on the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry.

Thanks again for reading, everybody. 

Take care. 


Coming soon: Summer of McGee Marathon


Beginning in the first week of spring, I’m going to read John D MacDonald’s entire Travis McGee series (21 novels). 

I’ve long enjoyed his standalone work, and been meaning to get around to the series he is best known for. So, as they are set so often on the sunny shores of Florida, and having spent a great deal of time there myself, and them being quick-paced action/thriller tales penned by a widely acknowledged master of plotting, I think it’ll make the ideal summertime reading project – and a bit of a masterclass for a newbie author like myself. Teach me, John! I’m ready to learn.

I hope to be done by the first day of fall, at the latest.

I’ll be posting about my opinion of the individual books (and reporting my progress) here every 2-3 books, as well as some fun facts and trivia about MacDonald himself I’ve dug up recently. Be sure to check back soon (or maybe even consider reading along?) for updates.

Meanwhile, you can learn about MacDonald himself, one of my personal favorite writers, here, and about his most iconic creation, Travis McGee, the beach bum, salvage consultant knight-errant, here. 

It has been a particularly brutal winter here in western Washington State, and I am itching for better weather and to begin this reading challenge. 

Take care.

And thanks, as always, for reading everyone.

My picks for the five best titles for budding bookworms

Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review. 

“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”

So says Dr. Seuss.

But while youngsters may go gaga over the idea of storytime, getting middle schoolers and teens to pick up a book unassigned by a teacher can be hard. And in a world of ever decreasing attention spans, amidst an informational landscape made up more and more of photos, videos and 280-character thoughts, what we’ve gained in connectivity, some say, we are at risk of losing in contemplation.

To think critically, to consider something at length, is a skill future generations clearly need schooled in — and to do that you gotta read. So, with Read Across America Day, the highlight of the National Education Association’s annual reading motivation and awareness program, again set to be soon upon us (on Saturday, March 2, in fact), I thought it time to take a slip from the good doctor’s prescription pad and give adolescent would-be bookworms a shot in the arm, and a nudge in the right direction.

Here are five books I suggest sharing with the in-between readers in your life, some classic and others lesser known, for those beyond kids books but not ready for true grownup fare quite yet. Whether you prefer stories set on the page, the screen or even enjoyed aloud: Ready, set, read!

1. “The Only Alien on the Planet” by Kristen Randle

My own mother read this book to my siblings and I many, many years ago and it has stuck with me.

New student Ginny is intrigued by the handsome alien in her homeroom — and no, this is not a science fiction novel. Smitty, whose real name is Michael, is known to all the kids as “The Alien” because of his indifferent demeanor and constant, complete silence.

Soon, Ginny and Smitty’s longtime protector Caulder team up to try and crack his seemingly impenetrable shell. But they get more than they bargained for when they drag him along to a classic movie double feature and the unflappable “alien” has a strangely personal reaction, one which sets his only friends on a determined path to understand the source their quiet companion’s self-imposed exile from the world.

It’s a striking, intriguing story of trauma, abuse, new friends and old secrets.

2. “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin

Ranked No. 9 among the all-time greatest children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal in 2012, this is another book that made a pivotal impression on a younger me when it was assigned reading in sixth grade.

The story involves 16 seemingly unrelated heirs of reclusive millionaire Sam Westing and his innovative challenge to them, from beyond the grave, to figure out the secret behind his sudden death. They must figure out who killed Westing by using clues in his will, which is structured as a puzzle. Each of the eight paired teams, assigned seemingly at random, is given $10,000 cash and a different set of baffling clues. The pair that solves the mystery will inherit Westing’s entire $200 million fortune and control of his company.

It’s a perennially popular book, and rightfully so, and was even adapted to film. From Wikipedia: “In a retrospective essay about the Newbery Medal-winning books from 1976 to 1985, literary critic Zena Sutherland wrote of The Westing Game, ‘Still a popular book with the group of readers who are mystery or puzzle fans, in retrospect this seems more entertaining than distinguished. Its choice as a Medal book underscores the problematic question: Can a distinguished book also be a popular book?’”

Yes, Zena. Yes it can.

3. “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” by Kimberly Willis Holt

This National Book Award winner, published in 1999, deals with obesity, war, death and loyalty — so not exactly breezy fare, but the end is worth the endeavor.

“The red words painted on the trailer caused quite a buzz around town and before an hour was up, half of Antler was standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.”

Toby Wilson is having the toughest summer of his life. It’s the summer his mother leaves for good, the summer his best friend’s brother returns from Vietnam in a coffin, and the summer that Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, arrives in their sleepy Texas town.

While it’s a summer filled with heartache of every kind, it’s also a summer of new friendships gained and old friendships renewed. And it’s none other than the enigmatic Zachary Beaver who turns the town of Antler upside down and leaves everyone, especially Toby, changed forever.

USA Today said, “This book packs more emotional power than 90 percent of the so-called grown-up novels taking up precious space on bookshelves around the country,” and I’d have to agree.

4. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier

First placed in my hot little hands by an especially important English teacher waaaay back in ninth grade, this book remains an early favorite of mine, and I’m not alone: Reportedly, although it received mixed reviews at the time of its publication, some have since argued it is one of the best young adult novels of all time.

There’s a fundraiser going on at the all-boys Catholic high school Trinity. The egotistical ambitious vice principal, Brother Leon, has recently become acting headmaster and, dramatically overestimating his leadership abilities, has committed the Trinity students to selling double the previous year’s amount of chocolates, secretly enlisting the support of The Vigils, a cruel and manipulative secret society of students who officially don’t exist.

Jerry Renault is a freshman who decides not to sell any chocolate, drawing the wrath of the administration and The Vigils, resulting in an increasingly desperate and violent series of confrontations. Think “Cool Hand Luke” meets “Lord of the Flies.”

From Wikipedia: “Because of the novel’s language, the concept of a high school secret society using intimidation to enforce the cultural norms of the school and various characters’ sexual ponderings [the book] has been embroiled in censorship controversies and appeared as third on the American Library Association’s list of the ‘Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000–2009.’”

Buck the system, kids: Read this book.

5. “Rotters” by Daniel Kraus

I actually read this just a few years ago, had no idea it was a YA book and really enjoyed it.

But be warned: This one goes there. It gets serious. Certainly not for everyone, but it might be just the terrifying trick to get a reluctant reader sucked in. It feels like something your mom wouldn’t want you to read — the most gruesome “Goosebumps” book R.L. Stine never wrote (the man himself called “Rotters” an “unforgettable book,” though).


What kind of monster would do such a thing? It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of 19th century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a 16-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey’s life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school.

But everything changes when Joey’s mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets.

At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him. But once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating as he enters the family “business.”

Strong stomachs only, please.

‘Crash Code’ coming up fast

The future is now. At least, that’s what we’re told, but the more advanced technology gets, the more ways people find to hurt each other. Many say that technology changes the way we define ‘human.’ In this anthology, we’ll erase the definition entirely. ‘Crash Code’ examines the pinnacle of our technology and what happens when it meets the depths of our depravity.

Yes, the TOC for the upcoming Blood Bound Books technology horror anthology “Crash Code” has been announced, and I’m thrilled to be included among the awesome list of contributing authors. It’s great to be working with BBB again (who I last collaborated with for the extreme horror anthology “DOA III,” well worth your time – if you’ve got the guts for it).

Edited by Quinn Parker, the collection includes more than 25 tales (with, potentially, some later surprise additions to the author lineup) and is slated to see print in December.

So mark your calendars, fear fans. Featured authors include Kristopher Triana (a perpetual favorite author of mine), Dean H. Wild, K. Trap Jones, Aaron Thomas Milstead, T. Fox Dunham, Sean Eads & Josh Viola, KJ Moore and Rachel Nussbaum, among plenty others.

Check out the full list here:

I’m especially excited to be  part of this collection as depictions of technology and how it’s used in horror (films especially) and the difference between/blending of horror and dark sci-fi seems to be an especially timely topic of conversation among horror fans I know – and I’m certain we’ll see some striking stories here to reassure the naysayers. The future is frightening. 

Thanks again, all, for checking in with me. I’ve got a few more pieces in the works right now and some cool new stuff currently in production (including a brand new Storybook Gothic tale – the return of Grizz and Pixie is nigh!). Check back soon for details.

Take care of yourselves.

I’m in the club


Very excited and grateful to be an official member of the Horror Writers Association. My application was accepted and membership confirmed earlier today and I’m proud to be a part of such an illustrious organization. I can’t be certain I’m the only dual HWA/National Press Photographers Association member, but I should think there can’t be many of us.

Incidentally, the HWA recently published the 2018 Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot. 

It’s an obvious cliche, but I certainly do not envy this year’s judges. Though I have not read as many of the nominated works as I’d like, the ones I have were excellent.

Paul Tremblay continues to amaze with “The Cabin at the End of the World” (that guy’s on a hell of a role, right?). I confess to not thinking much of his earlier short fiction, but “Head Full of Ghosts” is one of my favorite novels (of any genre) ever, and “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” was nearly just as good.

“Frankenstein in Baghdad” is on my to-read pile right this second (think it just moved up the list), and, of course, you can’t go wrong with the King, though I have not actually yet read “The Outsider” yet.

I haven’t read any of the nominees in the “first novel” category, but several were promptly added to my list upon a cursory investigation.

In the “long fiction” category I can safely propose Usman T. Malik’s “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” as a solid bet for those in need of something to read. I enjoyed that one very much.

Happily (or maybe sadly if you are any other thing in my life needing attention right now) all of the nominated anthologies sound great, too.

Looks like I’ve got some reading to do … Oh, well. It’s a good problem to have.

Thanks, as always, for check in, everyone. Promise more regular, meaningful blog posts in the near future.

Take care.

My favorite horror movies of 2018

One of my favorite podcasts, Horror Movie Podcast, released their annual “Best of the Year” episode this week, an annual unveiling which I have eagerly anticipated since I first stumbled upon the program three years ago.

If you like horror movies at all and you’re not listening to this show you are messing up. I really enjoy it. The hosts are fun, personable, knowledgeable and they really do live up to the show’s slogan of being “dead serious about horror movies.”

This year, I especially enjoyed Episode 150 and 151, a two-parter about religion and cults in scary movies, and also Episode 146, all about Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. The epic coverage of the new “Halloween” movie was awesome, too (Episode 159), but it’s the “Best of the Year” lists that I look forward to most. Each host compiles their own list, and also a fourth list based on the input of listeners.

Now, I’m not usually a big fan of Top 10 lists (and they tend to proliferate at about the same time as talk of another thing I can’t stand: New Year’s resolutions )because I find the format restrictive and often arbitrary – clickbait of the worst kind. But these guys do such a great job, and carefully explain their individual processes and reasoning behind each selection and its ranking, that I began to reconsider. Also, it was such a freaking great year for horror movies that I just had to add my own voice to the chorus of celebrants.

So, for those who care – and aren’t sick of talking about it yet – here are my 10 favorite horror movies of 2018.

Honorable mention: The Nun
Swing and a miss – oh, but what a miss!
The latest in “The Conjuring” universe had so much going for it that I was physically pained by the parts that didn’t work. I loved the atmosphere and the acting, the general story and effects, too. But this is one of those times I feel one more go round at the writer’s table would have made all the difference. I mean, honestly, the critical turn in the climactic showdown was – SPOILER ALERT – a ridiculous trick cribbed from “Demon Knight,” the ’95 “Tales from the Crypt” film starring Billy Zane? Are you kidding me, (screenwriter) Gary Dauberman? Earn the paycheck, man.
Still, it’s hard to hate. These movies, though I don’t care for the straightedge superhero overtones (the Warrens were not Jesus’ own spiritual SWAT team, people), are the cinematic equivalent of a spook show ride at a carnival. You strap in, turn off your brain, and jump on cue. I had a good time.

10. Ghost Stories
I’d watch Martin Freeman eat breakfast, and he’s as wonderful as usual in a supporting turn in this surprisingly creepy English anthology. Though it’s technically listed as a 2017 movie, I’m fairly certain this didn’t get true widespread distribution until 2018, so I’m counting it.
I thought Andy Nyman – who I loved in “Black Death,” one of my favorite horror movies of 2010, for sure – was perfectly believable as the king sceptic Professor Phillip Goodman. Alex Lawther also was incredibly unsettling in this one. Some didn’t like the ending, but I thought it was in keeping with the tone and style of the movie as a whole. The first 10 minutes or so is a masterclass in stage-setting: We know all we need to about the protagonist, his motivations and desires, and thus it makes sense when he’s going way too far, past the point where any reasonable person would get the hell out of there later on, a point so many horror films fail to establish.

9. Cargo
I’d watch Martin Freeman eat breakfast. Did I already mention that?
This one is also listed as technically a 2017 movie, but it hit Netflix in 2018 so, again, I’m counting it.
It’s a beautiful, powerful and wholly original film. If you had told me last year that a zombie movie would be in a list of my 2018 faves, I would have mocked you mercilessly. Too overdone, I thought. What’s left to say? I thought.
I was wrong.
This is a great movie, and one I think even non-horror fans can get behind if they give it a chance. I was seriously empathizing with Freeman’s character throughout, and the novel additions to the “infected” scenario were genius.
Also, I really loved the inclusion of so many Aboriginal actors. They added real gravitas to the story. Expect big things from Simone Landers.

8. Cam
Intriguing and creepy, with a star-making lead performance by Madeline Brewer. I legitimately had no idea what to expect and was surprised several times throughout. A really great intimate (see what I did there?) horror film with a hell of a hook.

7. Bird Box
Wonderful source material (read the book if you have not), wonderful characters played by wonderful actors and gripping cinematography. It’s a bit long, I think, and could have done with a harsher edit, especially in the last 15 minutes or so, but otherwise a flawless film. Big shoutout to – SPOILER ALERT – Tom Hollander, that guy is so creepy in this one. Loved it.

6. Apostle
I love me some good folk horror and this is some of the best in a while. I’d pair it on a double feature bill with 2011’s “Kill List.” Dan Stevens’ going undercover inside a remote agricultural sect to find his missing sister is a brilliant setup – I love that it’s a period piece, too – that pays off perfectly. Though the final moments left me momentarily shaking my head, I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity in my finale if the ride is worth taking – and this one definitely is.

5. A Quiet Place
Nothing I can say here that hasn’t bee said. Yes, it’s a bit too “Screenwriter 101” story-wise, and yes, it’s got a bit too much of that filter-heavy Rust Belt poverty porn vibe cinematically, but these gripes are minuscule in comparison to everything that’s good about this movie. And while I do question why not a single government scientist or, you know, any adult anywhere on the planet, could have possibly missed stumbling upon what is ultimately revealed to be perhaps mankind’s greatest hope of fighting these (admittedly awesome looking) creatures, I’ll allow it because the whole thing is captivating and sincere.
Bonus points for being one of the greatest theater-going experiences of my life: utter silence throughout, and it was crowded in there. I think some people were literally holding their breath.

4. Halloween
Another fantastic theater experience here, and a movie I was all but certain I’d hate, Halloween came around and gobsmacked me into remembering what it was like to be a little kid watching a scary movie. It’s fun, thrilling, creepy – everything a great horror movie should be. JLC is perfection, as usual. Some found cause to complain about certain twists, and some purists will of course hate everything not made by JC himself, but this movie made happier than I thought possible. Retcon away, filmmakers, but only if you do as well as these guys did.

3. The Ritual
Another book I loved that became a film I love. In fact, I think I might actually prefer the movie, it’s that good. Featuring stellar performances and locations, amazing cinematography and the hands-down the coolest creature I’ve seen on screen in years, this movie came along early in the year and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
In terms of strictly being the movie on this list I’ve already rewatched the most, “The Ritual” is my favorite of the year.

2. Hereditary
Again, not much new I can add to the discourse here. Believe the hype. This is sincere dread on screen – hopeless horror of a simultaneously immediate and existential variety. I’m not sure enjoy is the right word, but I was affected. Also, while certain stylistic influences are obvious, “Hereditary” looks like nothing else. It’s an outlier, a game-changer. And while I’m not sure I’d go so far as to agree it’s “this generation’s ‘The Exorcist,’” it is an important cultural moment I was glad to be alive for.

1. Satan’s Slaves
Man, have you seen this movie? Wow! Though again technically released in 2017, in Indonesia at least, it’s now streaming now on Shudder and you should check it out right now. “Satan’s Slaves” came out of nowhere and honestly got under my skin. The less said about the plot the better, so I’ll just echo the common rundown: a cash-strapped, hapless family is haunted after the death of their once-famous mother, who dies after being bedridden for three years from a strange and debilitating illness. I had low expectations going in and I was positively blown away. Everything about this movie works, there isn’t a frame or a beat I would change.

I had a few notable misses this year, movies I just didn’t get to in time to include them here. I especially regret not seeing the new Suspiria, Overlord, Terrified and Incident In A Ghostland, as I’ve heard nothing but great things about them all. I’m definitely going to seek them out soon.
Huh, I guess I do have a New Year’s resolution after all.
Thanks, as always, for reading!

A Feast of Fright: Recalling Burger King’s ‘nightmare’ sandwich

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I miss it already.

Sure, I enjoy the “true” holiday season, but there’s just nothing like the spookiest night of the year. Now, staring down Election Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas, I thought I’d take a sec (after voting, of course) to repost this fun story I wrote for the Bainbridge Island Review about my experience with the Burger King “Nightmare King” Halloween promo sandwich.

Thanks for reading, everyone.


*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review, Oct. 2018 

They say its shade is an impossibly, unearthly green.

They say even brave men shudder at the sight of it.

They say it gives you nightmares.

No seriously, they really do that say that last one. As USA Today reported, “Burger King says its new sandwich is clinically proven to induce nightmares.”

Oh, Burger King, you had me at unearthly green.

An unapologetic sucker for gimmicky promotions (to which BK is no stranger, to be sure), I immediately marked my calendar, belly rumbling in anticipation, after first reading about this new Halloween-inspired sandwich with three kinds of meat and a ghostly green bun. I long for the days of Pepsi Blue, hadn’t been this excited since I first laid eyes on Kentucky Friend Chicken’s Double Down. I wallow in Americana. This, I thought, could be the next Hardee’s Most American Thickburger, but with quirky science replacing that gut-buster’s heavy serving of ironic patriotism.

Apparently, Burger King enlisted Paramount Trials and Florida Sleep & Neuro Diagnostic Services to test 100 people for 10 nights to prove their headline-snatching hypothesis. Scientists who worked on the study reported that eating the entire burger shortly before bed made it 3.5 times more likely that you’d have a nightmare, as supposedly proven by participant feedback and recorded brainwaves.

According to ABC News, “Dr. Jose Gabriel Medina, the study’s lead doctor, said the unique combination of proteins and cheese in the Nightmare King led to ‘an interruption of the subjects’ REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycles, during which we experience the majority of our dreams.’”

The so-called “Nightmare King” consists of “a quarter pound of flame-grilled beef, a white meat crispy chicken fillet, melted American cheese, thick-cut bacon, creamy mayonnaise and onions on a glazed green sesame seed bun,” and it was unleashed in select stores Oct. 22.

Lucky for me, the closest BK to Bainbridge Island (19655 7th Ave. NE, in Poulsbo) also happened to be one of the select stores set to host this gastronomical grotesquerie (the consummate pro, I called ahead). I got it to go and ate it at home on Tuesday (while watching “Kitchen Nightmares,” seemed appropriate). It’s a fine enough fast-food sandwich, if a little dry. It is more than adequately salty, though, and I felt the need for a frightening amount of water afterward, if nothing else.

After, I swung by the aquatic center to cover the boys water polo match (a win over Roosevelt High), and then trekked back home to do some reading (Tom Hanks’ “Uncommon Type,” not exactly nightmare fuel) before calling it a day.

Of my dreams, I remember nothing.

Oh, well, maybe I didn’t eat it “shortly” enough before bed.

However, the true darkness at the heart of this Halloween promotion has nothing to do with the sandwich’s specious effects. You see, on the very same day that I saw the story about the upcoming “nightmare” burger promotion I also caught a fleeting glimpse, like a killer half-seen in a slasher movie just before he strikes, of my first Christmastime commercial of the year. It was more than a week before Halloween. And I don’t watch that much TV, so who knows how long ago this actually started?

Look, I know it’s a cliched complaint. It’s a grumpy old man thing to say (“Get your gingerbread off my lawn!”). I’m not even a Grinch, either. I actually like Christmas. But I’m starting to see where the green meanie was coming from.

When Christmas was a month long, I was fine with it. When Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving, I was fine with it. As it absorbed Turkey Day and New Year’s Eve, like a the famished Blob come from space to suck up all nearby holidays, I had no complaints.

But please, people, get your tidings of comfort and joy out of my Halloween.

We’re never going to make “them” stop pushing Christmas early, of course. The retail and commercial worlds depend too heavily on holiday revenue (such expenses are to the average person what the tab at last call is to a lush — less than real, a problem for the future), and in a harsh time of nasty headlines and hard truths the nostalgia and manufactured sense of community the most wonderful time of the year brings is downright alluring. I get it, I really do.

Thus, we must pace ourselves and protect that goodness.

In a world where everything is on demand and immediately available via streaming or download all the time, we will never again have to wait for the things we love, never again know anticipation. And isn’t that half the point? Isn’t the appeal of a holiday that it’s a special, fleeting thing?

Nobody wants egg nog in July. Candy corn in February is disgusting (it’s already kind of gross in October). Pumpkin spice in April? Get out of town.

Likewise, Christmas cannot be allowed to engorge to fill three months or we will all start to hate it, Grinch and Who alike.

So, this year, let’s agree to take each holiday in turn. Let Halloween be its own thing, channel your inner Ray Bradbury. It’s only one night a year, after all. And things will start to move pretty fast from here on in, folks. In no time at all we’ll be breaking out the holly and mistletoe, the lights, buying gifts, signing cards and (gasp) visiting relatives.

Now that’s nightmare fuel.


Wow, thank you very much.

Photo courtesy of Kitsap Daily News | Bainbridge Island Review editor Brian Kelly and yours truly pose with a sampling of our awards, won this year in the Better Newspaper Contest. 

I was truly honored to be named the 2018 Feature Writer of the Year in this year’s Better Newspaper Contest, sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. Thank you to all the judges and officials, it’s very gratifying to know my work resonated with people outside the Seattle area, too.

In total, the Kitsap News Group won 45 awards!

I took home seven awards myself, including first-place wins in Personality Profile (long) and Sports Personality Profile; and third-place wins for Business Feature Story, Comprehensive Coverage (single writer), Story on the Arts and News of the Weird.

Brian Kelly, the editor of the Bainbridge Island Review, and my mentor, won six awards, including first-place wins in Breaking News Story, Crime and Court Story, Front Page Design and Feature Photo (black and white).

The Review also placed second in the General Excellence category, which might have been the most exciting accolade of all!

You can read a full list of the group’s awards here (and see my short video Q&A with the regional editor. 

Thanks again to all the judges and readers. I’m so proud to be a journalist working in America today. It is a noble, important occupation.


Four more pairs of fine flicks

Originally published: The Bainbridge Island Review, Oct. 2018 

Given the two thumbs up several outspoken readers were kind enough to give my last double feature list (“The double feature is an American summertime screen staple: Review culture writer picks five pairs of movie mates,” Aug. 2018), I thought I’d take a second stab at this twofold topic.

Again, for those just joining our program, the name of the game is two great flicks that go great together. I love a well paired double feature and spend, admittedly, too much time considering and choosing candidates. Here are just a few more movies I think fit the plus-sized bill.

* Mild spoilers ahead

Awesome Animation Double Feature:

‘Perfect Blue’ (1997) and ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017)

If Brian De Palma directed a script by Philip K. Dick, set in 1990s Tokyo, and the resulting film was animated, it would be “Perfect Blue.” I’m not usually an anime fan, but this is a surreal, mind-bending masterpiece.

The film follows Mima, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to pursue an acting career. As she becomes a victim of stalking, with somebody writing a blog as her, apologizing to her disappointed fans, she starts to lose her perception of reality and fiction. Then, the people “she” writes bad things about end up dead. It’s cool and creepy and interesting and centers on an ambiguous, complicated female character, while simultaneously examining the artifice and rampant misogyny of the entertainment industry.

“Loving Vincent” is the first fully painted animated feature film. It’s beautiful and unique and sad, just like it’s subject: the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. Beginning one year after the artist’s suicide, a postman asks his son to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. He finds the death suspicious, as merely weeks earlier Van Gogh claimed through letters that his mood was calm and normal.

Each of the film’s 65,000 frames is reportedly an individual oil painting on canvas, using the same technique as Van Gogh, created by a team of 125 painters. It won Best Animated Feature Film Award at the 30th European Film Awards in Berlin, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

Evil Ernie Double Feature:

‘The Devil’s Rain’ (1975) and ‘Deadly Blessing’ (1981)

On paper, Ernest Borgnine should not have been a movie star.

The bulging eyes, the ponderous belly, the gap-toothed grin, and those eyebrows, man — all of it should have condemned the guy to a workaday career as a character actor at best.

But Ernie is mesmerizing. Be it in a true classic like “The Wild Bunch” or “The Poseidon Adventure,” or these two madcap movies, both which see the man who was Quinton McHale lead fiendish clans of ne’er-do-wells in scene-chomping, operatic performances that make Nicolas Cage look subtle, Borgnine brings it every time.

Like its star, the “The Devil’s Rain” is a film that defies logic. Directed by surrealist visionary Robert Fuest (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”), with a cast includes William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino and John Travolta, it boasts as its technical advisor Anton LaVey himself, founder of the Church of Satan. In it, Borgnine leads a pack of undead Satanists in a crusade to recapture a precious unholy book. The mood is tangible, the effects practical — and gonzo — and all the performances are stellar.

“Deadly Blessing” again sees Ernie in charge of a sinister sect, this time in Amish country. Directed by Wes Craven (father of Freddy Krueger), the movie follows Sharon Stone and Susan Buckner as they visit a friend who recently lost her husband in a farm accident. He was a former member of Borgnine’s simply dressed, technology-averse cult — the man’s own son, in fact — and her frightening father-in-law has made no bones about wanting her off the land and out of town.

Then, a mysterious figure begins killing cultists and city gals alike, and the space between myth and fact gets narrow. Brace yourself for the final five minutes, they’re a doozy.

Truly Strange Double Feature:

‘The Billboard Boys’ (2017) and ‘Demon House’ (2018)

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking, no question. There’s a deluge of stranger-than-fiction features out there begging for your attendant — on screens big and small — but these two, I submit, are especially worthy.

Life in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley circa 1982 was not fun. Economically, things were bad all over, but it was downright ugly in the Rust Belt. Rampant unemployment and general disenfranchisement with the American Dream made the perfect backdrop for one of the weirdest radio contests of all time, recounted perfectly in “The Billboard Boys.”

Three men, competing for a mobile home, lived side-by-side on a roadside billboard — sleeping in tents stocked with a portable toilet, a telephone and other bare necessities — with the last one down being named the winner. Simple enough, right? People expected this thing to last a few months, maybe. But then none of them came down. Time passed, a lot of time. Capturing international press attention, the haggard trio came to symbolize everything wrong with the country’s economic system — with the rigged game of life, even.

Then, things got weirder.

It’s a truly American tale, the kind of quirky real life story begging for a cinematic adaptation (one I’d like to see the Safdie brothers direct).

“Demon House,” directed and starring everybody’s favorite chest-puffing, spirit-abusing TV host Zak Bagans (the shouty one in “Ghost Adventures”), is a highway accident of a documentary you can’t stop watching. In it, Bagans buys a supposedly haunted house in Gary, Indiana, sight unseen (the notorious Ammons home), hoping to stage a thorough on-site investigation, interview people who have been affected by the ghostly goings-on and subject matter experts. What ultimately emerges, though, is much creepier than proof of demonic activity: The portrait of a zealot.

Bagans breezes past obvious possible contributing factors behind the “haunting,” allotting insultingly brief moments to issues like the emotional and psychological effects of systemic poverty, and the social support systems that have clearly failed many in that part of the state (similarities to the famous Enfield haunting are undeniable; why do ghosts hate poor people?). Large portions of the film are (admittedly well done) reenactments, and much of the captured “proof” is crew members acting weird or complaining of strange feelings. Never mind all that, says our host. Ghosts, bro! Bagans is frat boy Ahab in search of his demon whale, a man who (if he ever had any) has long since chest-bumped away his doubts.

Still, when viewed for solely entertainment purposes, the doc is addictively fascinating.

Know Jack Double Feature:

‘Revenge of the Creature’ (1955) and ‘Monster on the Campus’ (1958)

Jack Arnold is an unsung hero of American cinema whose time for reappraisal has come.

Called by the Los Angeles Times, “one of the finest, most resourceful B-picture directors ever,” he helmed more than his share of classics, including “It Came from Outer Space” (1953), “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), “Tarantula” (1955), and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), among others. What might in lesser hands have been just more drive-in fodder is instantly elevated by Arnold’s atmospheric cinematography and a sophisticated handling of story.

Reportedly born on a kitchen table, the son of Russian immigrants, Arnold was at various times a member of the military Signal Corps, a pilot, an actor, a dancer, a documentarian. His movies almost always have a clear moralistic stance and blatant patriotic bent (perhaps the reason he has yet to be taken as seriously as he should), overcoming issues of budget and primitive effects to be inordinately captivating.

Filmmaker and author Jon Baxter said, “No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision.”

Good thing too, because for this Arnold-themed double feature I’ve chosen two of his more “tawdry” works.

“Revenge of the Creature” sees the titular scaly resident of the Black Lagoon finally captured and imprisoned in a Florida aquarium, from which he promptly escapes, wreaking the expected havoc. In light of the “Blackfish” controversy, and the ongoing discourse about the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, this unjustly dismissed sequel is worth a watch now more than ever.

“Monster on the Campus” is not a great movie, but it is a mesmerizing snapshot of bygone America and charming in that way only vintage sci-fi can manage. In it, a cardigan-clad professor turns into a killer Neanderthal after injecting himself with the irradiated blood of an ancient fish.

Because science, right?

Cult Love Double Feature:

“Split Image” (1982) and “The Invitation” (2015)

Mix up some Kool-Aid, film fans.

Actually, it was poison-laced Flavor Aid being downed during the tragedy at Jonestown, which occurred exactly 40 years ago this November. Cults are a timely topic these days, with a glut of documentaries, series and feature films making the rounds in pop culture. It’s no wonder. Cults tend to flourish in times of distress, when trust in government is low, reliable information is scarce or often in question, when more mainstream religions have failed to provide comfort and community, and people feel powerless and alone.

I dare say enjoying the future stories of the wackadoo (that’s a technical term, by the way) sects flourishing even now in the American hinterlands is reason enough to persevere through these draining times.

But, while you wait, check out these fine films.

“Split Image” is a playground of performances. Michael O’Keefe plays a clean-cut, all-American college athlete who is lured to a youth-oriented religious commune by the beautiful Karen “Mrs. Indiana Jones” Allen (can’t say I blame him there). He quickly falls under the sway of the uber creepy cult leader, played perfectly by Peter Fonda! His desperate parents turn to a supposedly professional “deprogrammer,” played as sublimely sleazy by James Woods, whose “cure” might be more traumatic than anything Fonda’s followers can dish out.

Also, keep an eye out for Brian Dennehy, because what movie doesn’t need a little of that guy?

“The Invitation” depicts the most tension-filled dinner party of all time, and there may or may not be something malicious at work.

Logan Marshall-Green (the poor man’s Tom Hardy) arrives at his former home at the invitation of his ex-wife, with his new girlfriend in tow, to attend a dinner party, having not been there since the divorce that followed the death of their young son.

Seems the ex and her new beau have just returned from an enlightening trip to Mexico and are eager to tell everybody about this group they joined there which works through grief using spiritual philosophy. Things get heavy quick and Marshall-Green begins to suspect his ex’s new friends are a cult planning a massive murder/suicide at the party. Or maybe it’s his own grief at work?

John Carroll Lynch, easily one of my favorite actors and capable of bone-chilling performances (see “Zodiac” (2007), gives a stellar show here, but it’s just one of the many amazing performances that make this movie exquisitely uncomfortable.

Speaking of Bigfoot: Inaugural Kitsap Sasquatch Symposium draws seekers, skeptics

*Originally published: Bainbridge Island Review, Aug. 2018 

Beyond the cling and clang of slot machines, past the large central bar, sports-slathered TV screens ablaze (if you reach the bathrooms you’ve gone too far) the exclamations of those both flush and bust faded and gave way to talk of a phenomenon much less certain than the house’s advantage.

There in the event center of The Point Casino & Hotel in Kingston, the reportedly first-ever Kitsap Sasquatch Symposium was both a more and simultaneously less serious affair than I expected.

The inaugural cryptid conference, held on Aug. 5, saw a nearly full house of attendees and featured six speakers of various backgrounds and expertises.

It was a professionally run operation all around, but a weirdly mixed bag mood-wise.

On the one hand, there were serious, academic discussions about Washington’s most elusive hominid. Some were clearly true believers come to congregate with their fellow faithful, others there for a lark (or perhaps drug along by a more excited acquaintance) — but nearly all were attentive and respectful.

On the other hand, there were goofy souvenirs and collectibles for sale, the predictable parade of silly shirts (though one man was rocking a seriously stylish Bigfoot-print cardigan sweater), a twangy lunchtime concert by the Live Night Crawlers (who even sang a Bigfoot hunting song) and a cocktail bar in the back, lest anyone forget we were in a casino.

Presentations ran the gamut science-wise as well.

Noted periodontist and longtime amateur Bigfoot researcher Judy Carroll recounted the evolution of a months-long “discussion” she’d been having with a supposed tribe of Sasquatch near a favorite hiking area, conducted with a kind of fluid symbolic glyph-based “language” of rock, stick and food arrangements.

Jeff Meldrum, a professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University, dissected key frames of the famous 1967 Patterson–Gimlin film, espousing at length and in great detail the specific scientific observations made possible by the contentious short and its importance in the history and lore of Bigfoot research.

Rich Germeau, a former sheriff’s deputy in La Push, recounted a dramatic personal Bigfoot interaction and discussed the possibility that the creatures may be able to “project” psychological power somehow, even manipulate humans for their own ends.

At one point, apparently frustrated by the scholarly tone of the gathering, a young man with female companion in tow walked out. He shouted, “Boring!” before letting the door slam shut behind him — gathering glares from several nearby note-taking members of the primarily enrapt audience.

We truly are a nation divided.

Though interest in the furry galoot so synonymous with the Evergreen State has never truly waned, and the tribe of believers count among them many true professional researchers of impeccable credentials, it’s an especially good time to be a contrarian in America these days, with Bigfoot believers just one of a growing roster of suddenly less-fringy factions.

In an article recounting his experiences at a recent conference devoted to “Ancient Aliens” (the incredibly popular History Channel “documentary” series) New York Times writer Steven Kurutz wrote that it is perhaps not unreasonable that, “Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas.”

Behind the recent resurgence of the flat-earth theory, concern over chemtrails, continued insistence by many that global warming is a hoax and survivors of mass shootings being called crisis actors, and the appeal of the “Ancient Aliens” version of human evolution is a maddening tidbit of truth: History as we know it is far from complete.

“We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor),” Kurutz wrote. “What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low. And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.”

Likewise, about 200 people ponied up to secure a seat at the Sasquatch Symposium. But, be they skeptic or be they zealot, grizzled expert or fresh-faced nube, the desire that brings many to such gatherings has very little to do with the creature in question, said event organizer Patrick Lauerman.

“I think camaraderie and an exchange of ideas,” he said, when asked what he thought most guests hope to get out of the symposium.

“Most of these speakers … they have such incredible stories to tell because they’re so organic, they live and work in the Ho [Rain Forest] area. They’ve been exposed to what most of us buzz through or spend a day at. These people live there.

“If there’s going to be anybody exposed to a Bigfoot, it would be these guys.”

Lauerman was reportedly the booking agent for The Three Stooges for a number of years. He also repped Gumby and Pokey for two decades. Upon retiring, he made the acquaintance

of several prominent members of the Bigfoot community in Washington and, working closely with them, approached the casino about six months ago, he said, about holding a symposium in Kitsap.

He claims to be both an interested spectator and true believer.

“I’ve become more of a true believer, but the culture and the history … I’ve always been fascinated by history generally, so the history of this kind of just fit into my own mindset. I enjoy it.”

Maybe that’s all that matters.

I bought a book at the symposium: “Edges of Science” by Thom Powell. It’s a sequel to his oft-praised “The Locals,” described as a kind of Bigfoot primer for those looking to immerse themselves in the lore and culture. “Edges of Science” is supposedly the advanced course. It features a cover illustration depicting Bigfoot and a small extraterrestrial on a cliff, gazing at a flying saucer. I giddily laid my money down.

In the introduction, Powell writes: “It may be impossible to scientifically investigate paranormal events, but that does not mean paranormal events cannot or should not be scientifically investigated.”

That may not be quite as Kafkaesque as it sounds. I like the spirit of it. I like what the search for Bigfoot says about us as a people. It’s optimistic in a time when there seem to be few things worth being optimistic about — and even fewer true mysteries left to solve.

Full disclosure: In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must divulge that I’m a Sasquatch optimist. I’m Fox Mulder, people — I want to believe. But I just cannot shut down the Scully side of my brain. I suppose that’s for the best. Unwavering belief can be toxic. Truly unwavering belief finds you planting bombs in abortion clinics, or in line at a dirty commune in Guyana waiting for your cup of Flavor Aid.

However, from the relative safety of your own home (or the event center at the Point Casino) and sans sunglasses-sporting doom messiah, I’m with Mulder: The truth is out there. Why not look for it? Why not seek Sasquatch? How many of today’s givens would have been unthinkable not long ago?

In a world where there is water on Mars, our celebrity president is calling for an entirely new branch of government, driverless cars have claimed the first victim of the imminent A.I. war, and Roseanne got a reboot before Frasier, honestly, would “Bigfoot Proved Real” even crack the top 10 craziest headlines this month?

As I said, I like what the search for Bigfoot says about our culture.

Recently, I got to chat with Robert Michael Pyle, one of the foremost experts on, if not the actual creature, certainly the culture around Bigfoot. His seminal book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” was brought back into print last year in a new, expanded second edition. I asked him about the seemingly eternal appeal of Bigfoot, and the perseverance in the face of doubt and skepticism that seems to fuel the searchers.

“Americans seem to have a fascination with wildness,” he said. “That comes from manifest destiny and constantly pushing westward. And when you get to the edge of the West, where do you go? Well, you push into other forms of the wild, which might be outer space and UFOs and that sort of thing, it might be virtual reality and computer realms, it might be supernatural and the paranormal for some people. Or, for many people it is the actual deeper wilds, wilderness areas.”

Right on.

Maybe the truth isn’t out there, but we’ll never know if we don’t look.

So I say go on and search, Sasquatch seekers. Go on, while there are still a few trees left and not every square inch of this cynical country gets perfect cell phone reception. There are still places even Amazon’s best drones can’t deliver to, after all. There are still places where the GPS won’t work. and a traveler needs a good map, a clear head and a solid pair of boots.

Way out there where the Ubers won’t go, the way can be rough.

And even if we never find the hairy hide-and-seek champ — even if the robots rise up and take over, or the sun burns out before our interest in the hunt does — we will at least end The Great Experiment knowing that America was still just a little bit wild.