Friday, October 31, 2014

For Halloween: the bat's nightmare

From George Takei

As Takei said, "No liking/sharing unless you get this immediately". Those who don't know/recall the significance can read more here.

Libraries, ebooks, and magical thinking

Writing for Library Journal, Wayne Bivens-Tatum ignores the economics behind the publishing business and indulges in a bit of magical thinking:

Unlimited access should be a no-brainer, but publishers keep selling single-use licenses to ebooks and librarians keep paying for them so obviously it’s not. The main advantage of ebooks over print books for library users is accessibility. They might take up less room in the stacks, and a PDA-driven ebook plan might save the library some money, but neither of those goals has anything to do with providing the best experience for library users. If accessibility is the main user advantage, then limiting that accessibility makes things worse for library users than they need to be. A print book is limited to a single user because it’s a physical object that’s not easily reproducible. An ebook is limited to a single user because someone deliberately restricted access.

I use my local library quite frequently (usually just for paper books). 

Often I find that the single user access of paper books incentivizes me to simply buy a title, due to a waiting list, or my desire to use the book for longer than the three weeks allotted by my local library system.

Using the library, in other words, involves opportunity costs and inconveniences.

If these opportunity costs and inconveniences disappear with library ebooks that can be downloaded by unlimited users for unlimited amounts of time, then no one will ever have an incentive to buy a book again.

That's great, right? 

Right, except for the old adage, "If no one gets paid, nothing gets made."  

Without an economic pay model, book publishing would still exist. But it would be limited to personal memoirs, poetry chapbooks, and other pure labors of love--which few people would want to read. 

Reference books that require the dedicated work of researchers and fact checkers? No--those would all go away if the universe magically changed to accommodate Bivens-Tatum's wishful thinking.

I like the concept, though. I also think that free Internet and cable TV access, unlimited free meals at my local restaurants, and the free use of any car I desire are "no brainers" in my more quixotic moments.

And then I remember that I have all those things because someone made money from them

Why should economic reality be magically different with reference books?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book review: "The Story of the Jews" by Simon Schama

This is an excellent book about Jewish history…but it isn't for everyone. Details in my video review below:

Get The Story of the Jews on Amazon…

Monday, October 27, 2014

Horror fiction and irony--why they don't mix

What is Rule #1 of writing horror fiction?

Rule #1 is: Take your subject matter seriously--or don't write horror fiction.

One of the great flaws of modern popular culture is its excessive reliance on irony.

Now, don't get me wrong: Irony has its place: I love comedic movies like Blazing Saddles. I enjoy the satirical essays of PJ O'Rourke and Dave Barry. I even enjoy the occasional wisecracking vlogger on YouTube. I'm not saying that writers, filmmakers, and performers have to be 100% serious, 100% of the time.

Nothing wrong with irony! 

But irony (or satire) as the basis of horror film or fiction is a recipe for failure. It's a bit like trying to make a milkshake with catsup, or trying to make a salad from raw liver. 

Nevertheless, irony has become a prevalent trend in horror film, in particular. 

Examples include: Zombieland (and its various imitators), Drag Me to Hell, and the Scream films.  

These movies might be entertaining--after a fashion, but they aren't very scary. They never achieve the "suspension of disbelief" that is required for horror fiction (or film) to work.

Let's consider why that is the case: What, after all, is the horror writer's job?

The horror writer is supposed to create a profoundly moving (and usually allegorical) tale that deals with topics of life and death. 

There are different kinds of horror fiction. Some horror fiction is naturalistic. Naturalistic horror deals with serial killers, natural disasters, and even wild animals (think Jaws). 

Other kinds of horror fiction rely on supernatural villains: vampires, ghosts, demons, etc. 

In either case, the horror story is fundamentally about a struggle with death--whether existential or spiritual. 

This is a serious topic, whatever form it takes. And the most effective horror films and fiction don't have a laugh track. The Exorcist, The Shining, The Walking Dead, and The Conjuring are all respectably frightening. They cast a spell and they draw you in, persuade you to believe in hypothetical scenarios that you would ordinarily dismiss as "impossible". 

Notice that none of these literary/cinematic works relies on a laugh track.

When a horror writer tells the reader, "I'm not really serious about any of this!" by attempting to make horror ironic or funny, what he is really saying is, "I don't want you to actually believe any of this--even for the duration of the short story/novel/film. I'm just pulling your leg here!"

This doesn't mean, incidentally, that a horror novel or film has no room for the literary device known as "comic relief". Shakespeare famously employed comic relief in his tragedies like Macbeth and Hamlet. That didn't make Macbeth or Hamlet less "serious".

The Shining (the novel) has some humorous family scenes, as does King's scariest novel, Pet Sematary. And Cujo has at least one scene that is roll-on-the-floor hilarious. 

But none of these scenes involve the presentation of the ghosts, the evil spirits, and the monsters that inhabit King's works and provide the chills. When King is writing his "monster" scenes, he writes with a serious tone. 

There is nothing inherently funny about a patch of ground that reanimates corpses (Pet Sematary), a hotel haunted by evil spirits (The Shining), or a rabid dog that kills people (Cujo). And so King doesn't try to make them funny. When King depicts the antagonist forces in his novels--be they human, animal, or supernatural--he imbues them with genuine threat. 

This requires a straightforward tone of voice, free of the irony that many writers nowadays seem to find obligatory. This is why Stephen King's novel's are scary--or at least compelling to read.

The important takeaway here is that the writer must take the horror element itself seriously. If you can't take the horror element seriously, then you shouldn't be writing horror fiction. You should be writing something else instead.

Let's get back to The Walking Dead, which almost all readers will be at least somewhat familiar with.  

Most of us would agree that the idea of the zombie apocalypse is well...pretty unlikely. This isn't a concern that keeps me up at night.

However, while you watch an episode of The Walking Dead, you temporarily and provisionally believe in the zombie apocalypse. Why? Because the writers and producers of The Walking Dead take the basic premise of the story--the horror element--seriously. And as a result, you take it seriously, too. 

On the other hand, comedic horror films never achieve this suspension of disbelief, because of the fundamental incongruity in how they present the horror elements. 

The writer of Zombieland obviously didn't take the idea of a zombie apocalypse seriously. Zombieland presents the whole concept as a load of bunk--a big joke--and so it never moves, enthralls, or captivates viewers like The Walking Dead does. 

The Walking Dead is a classic. Zombieland is forgettable and disposable.

I repeat: Irony has its place. But irony should be used sparingly in horror fiction, and never for the presentation of the horror elements themselves. 

Lovecraft and the "r" word

Seventy-seven years after Lovecraft's death, lots of finger-wagging over the author's personal viewpoints, which were admittedly racist by today's standards:

Lovecraft was both an old-school New England Anglo-Saxon, as well as a product of his times (the early 20th century). He had views about African-Americans, Jews, Italians, (and probably my own Irish-American ancestors) that were less than enlightened.

There is nothing wrong with noting this, and informing readers that Lovecraft was a flawed human being. (He most certainly was.) 

There is something neurotic about obsessing on it, and endlessly wondering, "Is it still okay to read, 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'?" 

If you read all of Lovecraft's work with a fine-tooth comb, you will occasionally happen upon vaguely racist/xenophobic passages. But 98% of his work is just plain fun. We aren't talking about Mein Kampf or The Birth of a Nation here.

Lovecraft died before World War II began, in the year in which this author's grandfather was a randy sixteen-year-old boy. That was a fairly long time ago. There is no way Lovecraft, now long, long dead, can recant his racial views or make an official apology for them.

So what, really, is the point of constantly kvetching about this?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Stephen King", and questionable publishing ethics

A Good Marriage

I noticed this Stephen King novella available on Amazon today, "A Good Marriage" with the bonus story, "1922"

The combination was actually panned by quite a few readers. Why? Both stories/novellas were previously released as a parts of Full Dark, No Stars, from a few years ago. Some selected reader comments include:

"As others stated, pretty annoyed that this is being marketed as a "new" book when it's part of a collection I already own. My fault for not recalling the name of every short story I've read in every collection released, I suppose, but still...feeling ripped off. That said, the stories are good. Just don't bother with this if you've already got or want to read Full Dark No Stars."

I'm disappointed that this was advertised as a "new book," with the publication date of September 30, 2014, when I received the pre-order alert. IT IS NOT a new story; it's a short story from Full Dark, No Stars (published in November 2010). I feel like I was charged far too much for a story that I've already read.
What the publishers essentially did, then, was rerelease approximately 50% of a book published in 2010 as a "new" book for 2014. 

This, in itself, is nothing horrible. Record companies have long sold artists' songs as singles, then as components of albums, and later as components of greatest hits/live albums. (I should also note, by way of full disclosure, that about a third of the stories in my Hay Moon short story collection are available as shorts on Amazon for $0.99 each.) Finally, there is a context to the rerelease of "A Good Marriage": The literary rerelease is a tie-in to the recent film.

Nevertheless, readers who have already read Full Dark, No Stars, will be understandably somewhat miffed. The publisher could have avoided the backlash and still made money by simply rereleasing the entire book with a movie tie-in cover. That would have alleviated all misunderstandings, and ill will among readers who'd already purchased Full Dark, No Stars, while still allowing the publisher to get a "boost" of new sales from the movie.

A "fake" Stephen King?:

I also noticed this book from an author who goes by the name "Stephen King"--but he clearly isn't the well-known Stephen King. 

I read through the first few pages of his book, and noticed several glaring typos. The book also has some suspicious-looking 5-star reviews. (The entire thing is suspicious.)

Here again we have a gray area--legally speaking, at least. I imagine that an attorney could file a successful "cease and desist order" if the author's birth name is not really "Stephen King". I did a Google search: The author of the "Crossroads" book doesn't seem to have any sort of a web presence. So this isn't even a case of him trying to use a name similarity to brand himself. Rather, this seems like someone's attempt to make a fast buck under false pretenses.

Is this a trademark violation? I really can't say. But it is definitely less than honest.

Negative reviews: when authors attack

Needless to say, this is the sort of thing that no author should ever do:

As an author, I too would like to believe that my work will be universally loved and revered for its entertainment value as well as its literary merits. And why not? I wrote all of them, after all.

The fact of the matter, though, is that every book fails to work for at least some readers. As I browse though the Amazon ratings of some of my favorite novels, I invariably find that some readers hated my favorite books as much as I loved them.

For example, I don't see how any reader could fail to love Lonesome Dove, one of my all-time favorite novels. But as of this writing, Lonesome Dove as has accumulated twenty-three 1-star reviews. 

I should note that most people agree with me about Lonesome Dove; there are more than 700 5-star reviews. But could twenty-three people have believed that Lonesome Dove deserved only 1 star??? And what about the fifteen people who gave it only two stars?

Or what about Salem's Lot--the greatest vampire novel ever written? How could more than fifty Amazon readers have assigned Stephen King's best novel (in my opinion) only one or two stars?

Here's an opposite example: One hundred and sixty-eight readers gave Tom Clancy and Peter Telep's Against All Enemies only one star. I read the book and thought that it absolutely rocked. What's wrong with those 168 1-star reviewers...or, if you prefer, what's wrong with me?

The point here is that literary brilliance is often in the eye of the beholder. The Internet allows Joe and Jane Reader to have their say to a degree that would have been impossible twenty years ago. Sometimes that works to an individual author's advantage, other times it doesn't. 

But if you focus on your craft and strive to create compelling stories, then the 5-star reviews should balance out the bad ones over time. (Also...a few low-star reviews can actually lend credibility to the more laudatory ones, as evidence that the author didn't engage in astroturfing.)

Bottom line: An author's best course of action is almost always to make a policy of never responding to reviews at all--and especially the negative ones. (There are a very small number of exceptions--but these are rare enough to ignore for our purposes here.) 

In the Internet Age, writing books is not a good line of work for overly sensitive people.

The surprising history of cemeteries

Although written in a local (NY) paper, this article contains some interesting facts about cemeteries:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Free paranormal stories on Amazon

The reviews for this one are mixed, but Jeff Bennington is a popular paranormal author. It might be worth a try:

Deromanticizing the independent bookstore

An interesting article from Huffington Post details one author's experiences with an independent bookstore:

Amazon's new Kindle: nice but expensive

Granted, not everyone will want to pay $200 for a reading device. 

The above review refers to the Kindle Voyage, which is the deluxe model. You can still buy a basic Kindle for only $79, which is pretty cheap, in the big scheme of things.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Publishers, "the book business", and modern-day Luddites

A mostly innocent but extremely misguided piece by Michael Wolff of USA Today:

"The book business believes that Amazon is unfair in the way it sells books. It believes, in fact, that Amazon in its sales practices — pressuring the book publishers to lower their prices and profits — is the enemy. Amazon's ultimate design, publishers believe, is to ruin them or to wholly shift the center of gravity in the business from the creators of books to Amazon, the dominant seller."

I'm amazed at how inarticulate professional mainstream journalists are nowadays. The "book business" encompasses an entire supply chain--which includes not only publishers, but also writers (many of whom now publish independently), and book retailers. The book retailing sector includes not only Amazon, but also Walmart,, and even your local grocery store. (I have bought a lot of books at Kroger and Walgreens over the years.)

"Indeed, while Amazon may be the worst thing to have ever hit the book business..."
Amazon is not "the worst thing to ever hit the book business". Amazon makes reading more affordable and more accessible to more people than all those overly romanticized corner bookshops ever could. Amazon encourages reading by making the process of book purchasing easy, convenient, and affordable for the masses. How is that bad for "the book business"?

Wolff then suggests that publishers can "win" by selling books directly to consumers, thereby bypassing the need for evil retail outlets like Amazon. 

It's a grand idea, but it displays Wolff's ignorance of the function of the retailer: The retailer serves as a market aggregator: Readers want to do all of their book browsing in one place; they don't want to visit a dozen different publisher websites every time they purchase a new book. (And how could publishers based in high-rent New York City ever compete economically with Amazon's distribution system?)

Wolff closes with a bit of wishful thinking about building a "culture for books". The best way to do that, again, is to make them more affordable and easier to acquire. This is exactly what Amazon does. And while I share Wolff's contempt for most celebrity-authored books, the USA Today columnist comes off, overall, as a Luddite and an unrealistic nostalgist.

I miss the past, too. I miss the days when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, all four of my grandparents were still alive, and rock music was worth listening to. I miss the days when I had a full head of hair, and most people whom I met were older than me rather than younger. But time marches on.

And truth be told--I do miss those old brick-and-mortar bookstores a little bit myself. It was indeed fun to while away a few hours at Borders on a Sunday afternoon. 

But I don't miss paying full list price on a $29.95 hardcover novel, and I don't miss having my selection limited to what could be housed in the shelves of the Waldenbooks at my local mall. 

Wolff's basic premise, that Amazon and ebooks are an evil force to be "defeated" is just plain silly. It ignores the facts of consumer preferences, technological changes, and the economics of bookselling. 

Should we wage a campaign to bring back the cassette tape and the 8-track while we're at it--defeat the CD and the MP3?

Also: Whatever happened to the days when left-leaning journalists cared about saving trees--which, economics aside, is a huge selling point of ebooks?

Hauntings, places, and people

Different perspectives on the traditional haunted house story:

This essay waxes a bit on the philosophical side: It covers a range of topics from The Amityville Horror to Marxist economic theory.

Ghostly locations worldwide

Most of these are in Europe:

Cincinnati: a creepy place

Much of my horror fiction is set in the Cincinnati area, where I live and write. 

For inspiration, I often investigate local urban legends. (I always modify the urban legend somewhat when I write fiction, though, as was the case for my recent horror novel, Eleven Miles of Night--which is also set near Cincinnati.) 

Blogs like this one always get my idea factory churning:

Creepy Cincinnati

Uncertain times and post-apocalyptic fiction

Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn't so popular during the optimistic 1990s. 

Today--with Islamic terrorism, economic uncertainty, and the collapse of the "new world order" into multipolar chaos, post-apocalyptic fiction is all the the rage:

HP Lovecraft still relevant

HP Lovecraft was not a commercially successful author in his lifetime; but his influence persists to this day across various forms of "weird fiction" and film:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vampire burial in Bulgaria?

"Just in time for Halloween, the man known as “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” may have unearthed the grave of one of the undead. On Oct. 9, archaeologist Nikolai Ovcharov announced that he discovered what he called a “vampire grave” that contains a skeleton with a ploughshare – an iron rod used for a plough – driven through its chest, the Telegraph reports. The grave dates back to the 13th century and was discovered at Perperikon, an ancient Thracian city in southern Bulgaria."

Vampire hunting in the 1800s

Because people in the 19th century took vampire hunting seriously:

Independent publishing: both sides

A fairly balanced assessment of the pros and cons of the independent publishing trend:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

10 horror novels that should be movies or miniseries

I definitely agree with one of the books in this list: The Rising, by Brian Keene.

The Rising is one of the best zombie novels out there. 

If made into a television series, though, it would have to compete with The Walking Dead, and all the other zombie movies that have hit the big screen of late (most of which--unlike The Walking Dead--aren't very good)).

A *very* prolific Brazilian author

I have heard of R.F. Lucchetti before, though I've never read any of his books. (Which I would almost certainly would have, if I did a lot of my reading in Portuguese; Lucchetti is the author of 1,547 books.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pre-Halloween Kindle giveaway: Hay Moon and Other Stories

My short story collection Hay Moon and Other Stories, Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense will be free on Amazon Kindle from Saturday, October 18 through Monday, October 20th. 

Book description:

- During the Great Depression, a young boy confronts zombies…

- In the present day, a software salesperson discovers that he can commune with the dead at airports.

- A business trip is cut short when three corporate colleagues stray into a den of vampires near a major interstate.

- A Russian gangster makes a killing in America---murdering romantic rivals for hire.

These are just a few of the bizarre scenarios you will enter through the pages of Hay Moon and Other Stories…

Sixteen modern tales of horror and suspense…

***Hay Moon***

In the summer of 1932, the undead invaded a corner of rural Ohio. Nearly eight decades later, one man still lives with the nightmares, and a horrible promise left unfulfilled.

***Giants in the Trees***

Jim knew that his older coworker, Paul Taulbee, had a checkered past. But he was unprepared for the horror he discovered on the night he gave Paul a ride home from the office.

***The Vampires of Wallachia***

Three corporate employees on a business trip stop at the wrong place for a late-night dinner: a restaurant in central Ohio that hides a terrifying secret.

***Bitter Hearts***

Have you been wronged in love? An Internet company promises to make things right for you---for a price.

***Gate Time***

Traveling software salesman Josh Gardner had never been afraid of airports---until he discovered that some of his fellow travelers were not what they appeared to be.

***By the River***

The old man who lived on the houseboat warned people about the shadows lurking beneath the waters of the Ohio River. But some failed to heed his warnings.

***The Girl She Used to Be***

Thirty years ago Allison disappeared on the night that her college boyfriend was planning to give her an engagement ring. Now Allison is back--- but she’s not the girl she used to be.

***The Caliphate***

When a terrorist organization stages a bloody takeover of a Canadian city, two friends are forced to confront their innermost demons---and each other.

***The Wasp***

Leo had always been afraid of wasps---especially wasps that learn to assume human form.

***The Red Devil***

A security guard at a car dealership learns that death lurks in the nocturnal hours in a city torn by gang warfare.

***The Robots of Jericho***

Pete Greer suspected that the industrial robots purchased by his company were more than mere machines. Alone in a West Virginia factory with them over an extended summer weekend, the robots threaten his sanity---and his life.

***Last Dance with Emma***

University of Minnesota graduate students Eric and Randy travel back in time for hedonistic purposes. But when they visit New Year’s Eve 1978, Randy unexpectedly falls in love. Determined to secure an impossible future with a doomed young woman named Emma, Randy battles his friend, and the cruelty of a random universe. 

***Gaia Cried Out***

When Kara Teller met Nicholas Naretti in the student union of her university, she believed that she had found the ideal man. But there is something horribly wrong with Nicholas’s friends…And Kara reluctantly discovers that Nicholas harbors sinister intentions of his own. 


Robert and Susan Craig discover that the politics of the twenty-second century in America can be deadly. A leisurely time travel voyage lands them in a cell in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution. Condemned to the guillotine by the Jacobins’ Committee of Public Safety, they suspect the hand of the rising American demagogue, Senator Barry Olsen.


Corporate middle manager Greg Hensley simultaneously desires and loathes his new subordinate, Jessica Tanner. A bit of research into Jessica’s past reveals that Jessica may be dangerous. But Jessica is not the only one who is hiding evil secrets.

***The Dreams of Lord Satu***

Rapid GeoWorks salesperson Marc Jonas was ordered to visit the remote planet of Kelphi. His boss, Larry Dozier, told him to do whatever was necessary to make the sale. But Kelphi is a world where psychic spiderlike creatures occasionally devour the planet’s human population. The Kelphi aristocrat known as Lord Satu wants Marc’s mind, and possibly his body as well.

Get it FREE on Amazon Kindle (October 18 through October 20 only)