Saturday, December 31, 2016

FREE January 1st, 2nd on Amazon Kindle: "The Caliphate"

This is one of my longer short stories, and one of my earliest ones. 

Written after 9/11 but before the rise of ISIS, it explores the scenario of an Islamist terrorist "mini-state" in the heart of a Western nation:

Marty Frazier stopped to adjust the shoulder strap of his Uzi before heading down the long, gleaming expanse of Concourse A. Although he had been in the Ontario Islamic Guard for more than eighteen months now, he found that he was still uncomfortable with weapons—especially the automatic and semiautomatic kinds. He took a few steps forward before stopping once more—no doubt looking awkward by now—and double-checked the gun’s safety. The terminal was packed with what passed for Monday morning congestion these days, and Marty was taking no chances.
The sight of young men with guns had become commonplace over the past three years, and most of the passersby in Toronto International Airport didn’t even give him a second glance. Nonetheless, he kept deliberately to the side of the concourse, beyond the main flow of pedestrian traffic. Despite the authority that his gun and his uniform conveyed, he was almost shy about displaying either. Especially the gun. So far he had never had an occasion to draw the weapon in a threatening manner, and that was just fine with him. 
He spotted Phil Scherer in the distance through the crowd, walking in the opposite direction on the far side of the concourse. Marty held his hand high in the air and waved. Phil acknowledged the wave with a nod, and veered toward him. Phil was also wearing a Guard uniform, and carrying an automatic weapon of his own. People stepped aside to give him a wide berth as he threaded his way through the crowd. 
Marty leaned casually against the wall and waited. The airport loudspeaker crackled overhead. It was the midmorning call to prayer, which most Ontario residents still ignored. What else did Harb expect? The announcements were in Arabic after all, which almost no one in the Canadian province understood. Just the other day Ali had asked his opinion about reading the announcements in English. Marty had replied that English-language summons to prayer were an excellent idea. 
 Marty smiled as Phil drew near, but Phil’s gloomy expression was unwavering.
“Anything going on?” Marty asked.
“Nope. A quiet one today. What about you?”
“Nothing so far.”
“If we’re lucky it’ll stay that way.” 
“You said it. Insha Allah.”
Phil stiffened and glared at him. Marty immediately realized that his last two words had been a mistake. He began to say more, but Phil cut him off with a wave of his hand. He stepped closer, until the two of them stood no more than a foot apart. 
“Don’t quote the Quran at me.” Phil spoke in a low, raspy voice, just above a whisper. “We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we? After all, it’s not like Ali’s here.” .......

"Last Dance with Emma", the full version

A short story from my Hay Moon collection:

The dance club was full of women, and they were all writhing to the beat of the music that blared from perhaps a dozen overhead speakers. Randy thought: Yes, Eric was right, even I should have a chance of scoring here.
Most of the women were young; many looked barely out of high school. And those outfits. What an odd world this was: the last gasp of the disco era, a time when women’s clothing was revealing, glittering and gaudy. Low-cut dresses covered with sequins reflected back the strobe lights. Ridiculously high heels scooted across the dance floor. 
The ceiling above the central part of the dance floor was dominated by a mirrored disco ball. Near the disco ball hung a series of twisted neon tubes that formed the numbers “1979.” The numbers were mounted to a metal frame. At midnight the neon tubes would light up and the numbers would descend to a place of prominence directly above the dance floor. Welcome to the last year of the swinging seventies. Groovy, man. 
Eric tapped him on the shoulder from the adjacent bar stool. “Was I right or was I right?” Eric gestured toward a group of particularly rowdy women.
“I mean, was I right about coming here or not?”
If the objective was pure, unadulterated hedonism, Randy had to admit that indeed his friend had made a good choice in selecting New Year’s Eve 1978. The Sexual Revolution was now more than a decade old, but no one had yet heard of AIDS. Randy, like his friend Eric, was a physics graduate student at the University of Minnesota, but he also knew his history: If you wanted to party, then this was the place—or the time—that parties were made for....

Friday, December 30, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions, and Why We Need Them

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the importance of the personal year-end reflection. The next step, of course, is the New Year’s resolution—or rather, one’s list of New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s begin with the disclaimer that yes, a year is an arbitrary human construct. I happen to have a cousin who was born on January 1st, 2000; but serendipity of that degree is highly unusual. Most of us began our lives at odd points during the year, and we’ll end them at odd points, too. I was born on August 9th, 1968. My approximate checkout time is 2053, assuming that I live to the age of 85. (Why not be optimistic?) I’ll probably check out on April 3rd or October 12th, or whenever. I almost certainly won’t die at 11:59 p.m., December 31st.

So in the beginning, and at the very end, the arbitrary construct of the year doesn't matter much. But in between, during the decades when we’re active and reasonably vibrant, the 12-month, 365-day year is a convenient way of measuring progress. 

And whatever you’re doing—whether it’s writing poems, selling insurance, or running a restaurant—you do need to measure your progress. There’s an old saying, “What gets measured, gets done.” January 1st is a convenient time for beginning your measurements anew.

You could, theoretically, use your birthday as the switchover date for your personal New Year. I would advise against this. I’m a curmudgeonly individualist with a knee-jerk distrust of the crowd; but even I acknowledge that there are times when it makes sense to utilize the momentum of the wider culture to your advantage.

New Year’s Day is one of those times. Throughout December, with the shortening days, the chilly weather, and the slack time of the holidays, there is a pervasive feeling that things are winding down. Likewise, there is a sense of things starting back up again, with a new face on them, after January 1st. While January 1st is not the only time you could launch areas of your life in new directions, it is the most convenient time. 

Here is how I manage my New Year’s resolutions: 

I begin by reviewing the current year. Throughout each year, I maintain a simple journal. This isn't a formal, long-form diary. My yearly journal is a simple calendar or day planner that I use to record my major milestones and memorable events.

This minimalist journal doesn't take long to maintain, and it greatly facilitates the year-end review process. I’ve kept such journals since 1995, so I now have a drawer full of them. (I also use my journals for midyear reviews, and for looking back on previous years.) 

While reviewing the expiring year, I ask myself two questions: a.) What did I do well? and b.) What did I do poorly? I seldom have a year in which I screw everything up; but I usually do at least a few things right. 

I then set a series of resolutions designed to make the next year more productive. At this stage of my life, my resolutions fall under the categories of financial, professional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Depending on your situation, you might want more categories. A parent would probably need a parental category. A young person might want an educational category, and possibly a social category. 

Make your resolutions measurable and (important) attainable. 

Don’t set yourself the resolution of getting accepted at Harvard, as this depends on many factors beyond your control. But you can assign yourself the resolution of studying x hours per day, filling out x number of college applications, etc. 

Likewise, if you’re a young guy who wants a girlfriend in 2017, don’t give yourself the resolution of dating Taylor Swift, as that isn't going to happen. Don’t even set yourself the resolution of “finding a girlfriend”—as that will ultimately depend on someone agreeing to be your girlfriend. Focus on resolutions you can independently fulfill, which will make the “finding a girlfriend” outcome far more likely. These might include a.) joining a gym and working out regularly, and b.) chatting up two new romantic prospects each week. 

My focus, at this stage of my life, is writing and storytelling. I won’t set myself the goal of surpassing Stephen King and J.K. Rowling in sales in 2017. That (highly) unlikely outcome would depend on many factors I can’t control. But I can make concrete goals for my story output and marketing efforts. These are variables that fall under my immediate control.  

Since 1993, I’ve been setting concrete annual goals, otherwise known as New Year’s resolutions. I have derived consistent benefit from starting afresh each January 1st, but starting with a deliberate, consciously prepared plan in mind—a plan that is based on a thoughtful analysis of the prior year. 

I’ve never achieved every New Year’s resolution, but I’ve always achieved at least one or two of them—so New Year’s resolutions have always made my life better. 

I therefore plan to keep making them, until at least 2053 or my death, whichever comes sooner.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

On Year-End Reflections

In a matter of days, the calendar will turn, and 2016 will become 2017. This beckons personal, individual reflection.

If you’re tuning in to the Internet, you’re being told that 2016 was significant because a.) Donald Trump was elected president, because b.) Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Richard Adams, David Bowie, and Alan Thicke all died*.

But your reflections, as you pass from one year to the next, should primarily be about you. Not about the deaths of celebrities.

Famous people are always dying. Sometimes this legitimately is a tragedy, when someone is taken before their time. (Yes, it was a shame to see George Michael pass away at 53.) In other cases, it is simply the natural order of things. As I recently noted on this blog, Richard Adams died at the age of 96. That’s a good, long run by any standard. 

But more to the point: Unless you personally knew Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Richard Adams, etc., their deaths aren't really going to impact your life very much in the coming year. That’s the plain truth of the matter. I don’t want to be glib about these deaths, but you and Carrie Fisher probably weren't going to hang out much in 2017, even if she had lived. 

Her death is a significant loss for those who actually knew her—those who would have spent time with her in 2017. 

But not for you

Ditto for politics. The Internet is currently divided between people who believe that Donald Trump is going to usher in a new Golden Age, and those who believe that Donald Trump is going to wreck the whole kit and caboodle. 

They will both turn out to be wrong in 2017. Donald Trump will be significantly less wonderful than his most ardent fans are claiming he will be. (Lest my qualification here be mistaken for neutrality: I expect the president-elect to be better than the current one, and the alternative presented to us on Election Day; but no president is omnipotent, omniscient, or infallible.)

And if you’re one of those people who believe that the darkness of Mordor will descend upon the land on January 20th—that Donald Trump is the new Sauron (or, to use the more common cliche, the new Hitler)—you need to get a grip. Step away from the Internet, take a few deep breaths, and chill out.

But once again, let’s get back to you: Whether you are for him or against him, Donald Trump is not going to have as much influence on your life in 2017 as you are. 

Your year-end reflections, therefore, should focus on what you did right—and wrong—in 2016, and how you can do better in 2017. 

I’m not dismissive of external forces. While the Twitter-fueled mourning over celebrity deaths is largely the bandwagon effect, it is quite possible that you lost someone in 2016 who actually was close to you, and that was likely beyond your control. I know: I’m forty-eight years old; and by my age (unless you’re extremely fortunate), you know personal loss intimately. There are limits to what I want to share on the Internet in this regard, but believe me—I’ve been there. 

Ditto for the more mundane setbacks that often combine into a formidable cumulative effect: Sometimes the world seems to conspire against you. I know.

But as 2016 draws to a close, your reflection is best centered on what you can do to improve your circumstances in 2017. 

Consider those setbacks of 2016 that were genuinely beyond your control: How could you have reacted to them better, more resourcefully? That is worth thinking about.

In the upcoming year, you won’t be able to control every variable. But you will be able to control your own thoughts and actions.

That is where I recommend you direct your reflection as this year draws to its inevitable close: The year 2017 will have its share of celebrity deaths, political brouhahas, and Internet tempests-in-a-teapot. But your happiness at the end of 2017 will mostly depend on what you do between 1/1/17 and 12/31/17.  

So what will you do in 2017? Today is December 29th, 2016. Time to get busy reflecting and planning, so that you can get busy doing on January 1st. You will have a lot of control over what happens to you—and for you—in 2017. Use that power wisely, and use every resource at your disposal. 

*This morning it was reported that Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, also passed away. May they both rest in peace. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Richard Adams, R.I.P.

Richard Adams, author of the novel Watership Down, has died at the age of 96

I have fond memories of Watership Down. I was among the generation of children who first saw the 1978 animated adaptation of the book. I read the novel itself eight years later, as a senior in high school. Watership Down is one of those great books that everyone should read at least once, and I can't recommend it enough.

But what about the book's author? By any standard, 96 years is a good, long life. Adams's death has been overshadowed--perhaps rightly so--by the concurrent and untimely deaths of George Michael, age 53, and Carrie Fisher, age 60.

While the death of a 96-year-old from natural causes cannot rightly be called a tragedy (let's face it--we all have to go sometime) it is still a loss, especially in this case. 

We can be thankful that Richard Adams left Watership Down (and a handful of other fine books) for the enrichment of succeeding generations.

‘Rogue One’, politics, and creators

2016 has been the year in which, yes, even Star Wars screenwriters feel the need to lecture and bloviate about politics (from a fashionably leftwing perspective, of course):

“On Nov. 11, Rogue One writer Chris Weitz launched a barrage of anti-Donald Trump tweets that mirrored what many in Hollywood had posted on social media in the wake of the presidential election.But several messages took the crusade further, injecting the new Star Wars film into a divisive political debate: "Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization," wrote Weitz. Added fellow Rogue One scribe Gary Whitta, "Opposed by a multicultural group led by brave women." Both men changed their avatars to a Rebel insignia with a safety pin, a reference to the symbol of solidarity with persecuted groups that has spread following the election.”

As Stephen King observed in his 1986 novel, It, “Politics always change. Stories never do.”

Never mind that Stephen King has since forgotten his own advice, regularly making a jackass out of himself on Twitter. Star Wars is a tale that goes back to the mid-1970s. It has nothing to do with the petty, redundant battles of identity-group politics that now obsess so many of us. 

I was somewhat surprised to see that not all of the Hollywood talking heads were nodding compliantly. Some of them realize how short-sighted the onanistic Twitter storms are:

Responses offered a predictable split between cheers for the activism and jeers toward Hollywood liberals. What Disney and Lucasfilm might not be thrilled about is that a Trump "Empire" versus Hillary Clinton "Resistance" narrative might alienate the 61 million-plus voters who backed the real estate mogul — a group too large to ignore when a company is in the tentpole business. 
By wading into polarizing waters, might the Rogue One writers hurt its box office? That's a question being asked all over Hollywood."When you're trying to get a big movie out, you want to be as agnostic as possible. You want to be able to appeal to everyone irrespective of their political beliefs," says comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. 
"If it's a Michael Moore movie, go for it. Or Dinesh D'Souza. Then your currency is controversy. But if you're producing something for the masses, your currency is not controversy. It's get the movie out to the broadest possible audience."

As the above paragraphs suggest, a filmmaker or a novelist has little to gain by outright, public posturing on current events. With the acknowledged exceptions of overtly partisan political pieces (i.e., films by Moore and D’Souza) few creative works are likely to be enhanced by their creators spewing out political cliches on Twitter.

There is a time and a place for political debate—but political debate should not be ubiquitous. Star Wars, I would submit, need not be a narrative about Hillary, Trump, Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison, Barack Obama, the Alt Right, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. (I hope it isn’t, anyway.)

If the screenwriters did their jobs well (I haven't seen the movie yet), viewers will be enjoying Rogue One long after the melodramas of 2016 are distant memories.

Remember what Stephen King wrote in 1986: Politics are inherently temporary. Good stories transcend the temporary dramas of politics.

Short chapters: the benefits

If you've read any of the thriller novels of James Patterson, you've no doubt noted that Patterson structures each novel as a series of short chapters. 

I read somewhere, in fact, that the average chapter in a James Patterson novel is only 650 words long--and there are often more than one hundred chapters in a single book!


Contrast that with the norm of about 3,000 words. Chapters of 5,000 words are by no means uncommon, especially for literary fiction.

In the video below, I discuss the advantages of short chapters, for readers as well as writers, and I why I've been structuring my own novels, novellas, and short fiction accordingly.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

'Last Dance with Emma': FREE on Kindle, 12/22 through 12/26 description:

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hay Moon: a horror novelette, FREE Dec 21st, 22nd (Wed, Thurs)

Hay Moon is a long short story (technically a novelette) set in the 1930s. 

I wrote it a number of years before AMC launched The Walking Dead. Hay Moon offers a somewhat different angle on the zombie tale. (In other words, this isn't another post-apocalyptic story about a zombocalypse caused by a U.S. government virus.)

Give it a try. If you like the story, you might consider the eponymous horror story collection of which this is the lead story.


Paul Hammers was eleven years old in the summer of 1932, when the Hay Moon turned bad and for a brief while, the dead walked the earth in an isolated corner of rural Ohio.

Decades later, Paul Hammers, now a great-grandfather, looks back on that summer of fear. But is the nightmare truly over?

'12 Hours of Halloween', Reading #20: Where did the old man go?

From my YouTube channel, the ongoing reading of my coming-of-age supernatural thriller set in 1980: 12 Hours of Halloween

In this episode, Jeff walks into the Village Market after his encounter with the sinister-looking, wheelchair-bound old man, who appeared to be a shape-shifter of some kind. 

He asks the proprietor of the store for assistance, but the old man can no longer be found...

In a different frame of mind, I might have chosen differently. I might have been able to write off the old man’s momentary shift in appearance as an illusion. But this was coming on the heels of the ghost boy’s hideous transformation yesterday. I was still confused about the reality of the situation; but I knew that I was not going to step within lunging distance of the old man in the wheelchair. 
And anyway, I thought. How could the old man have driven here with no legs? The scene strongly suggested that he had arrived at the store in the maroon Oldsmobile—a Cutlass sedan that had probably rolled off the assembly line when JFK, or maybe even Ike, was in the White House. But how could the old man have driven it?
After a few more paces I turned my back on the man, and headed through the door of the Village Market. 
I was immediately greeted by Gene, the proprietor of the Village Market. Gene was in his normal place behind the cash register. Gene was an older man who had jet-black curly hair (probably dyed) and the bulbous, blood-vessel cracked nose of a lifelong drinker. He was a tall, shuffling man who wore bifocals and “grandpa” sweaters. Gene spoke in slow, phlegmy syllables, punctuated by frequent coughs.
I don’t think that I even returned Gene’s greeting. I immediately said: “There’s a man out in the parking lot who needs help. He has no legs.”
“What?” Gene asked. He might have thought that I was talking about a recent accident victim.
I shook my head. “No. Not that. His legs have been—amputated. He’s by his car in a wheelchair. He dropped his groceries.”
If the man had indeed purchased goods in the Village Market, I would have expected recognition to dawn on Gene’s face at this point. But Gene still seemed perplexed and maybe even a bit dubious of my story. He stepped from behind the counter and said: “Okay. I’ll go check it out. Don’t you kids steal anything.”
This is the right thing to do, I thought, as Gene pushed open the sighing door of his store, and its little bell jingled. Helping that old man wasn't my responsibility, after all.    
It seemed proper to wait for Gene to return, so I simply stood there. The St. Patrick’s students who had crossed Route 125 with me were now beginning to queue at the counter with their purchases. The inside of the small, cramped store was cool from the electric beverage coolers that lined the walls. Some of the coolers contained beer, but the St. Patrick’s students didn't bother with these, tempted though they might have been. Gene had been known to sell the occasional pack of cigarettes to a St. Patrick’s eighth grader when no one was looking, but not beer. The Playboy magazines behind the counter were also strictly off-limits. 
Gene walked back inside less than a minute after he had stepped out, shaking his head in mild frustration. 
“There’s no old man out there,” Gene said. He took his accustomed place behind the counter and began typing the first of the student’s orders into the cash register. He typed in each item manually, after looking at the code on the price tag. Barcodes existed in 1980; but Gene’s was a small store and he had not yet adopted them. 
“But,” I protested. “He’s driving an old car—an Oldsmobile. And he’s in a wheelchair.”
“Nope,” Gene said, without looking at me. He announced the first student’s total charges. “Take a look for yourself.”
I did as Gene suggested. I leaned out the front door, and looked across the expanse of the Village Market’s parking lot. I could see the adjacent business establishment (a seasonal fruit and vegetable market) and the row of trees behind the store. But there was no old man, and no maroon Oldsmobile.
Had he left? Had someone else helped him?
And then the thought that I didn't want to consider but had to: Had he even been there at all?
“I think you’re a little crazy from the heat,” Gene suggested, not unkindly. “Why don’t you cool off with a Pepsi or something? I’ve got a sale running: thirty-five cents.”
Not knowing what else to do, I did as Gene advised. I walked down the aisle along the far wall, across the green floor that always seemed to bear a light coating of dust and sticky residue. I opened the soft drink cooler and withdrew a can of Pepsi. 
To my relief, the other St. Patrick’s students were gone by the time I returned to the front of the store with my purchase. I wondered how much they had overheard of my exchange with Gene. If they were paying attention, I must have looked pretty silly. 
Without further discussion of the old man, I paid for my Pepsi and stepped back outside into the golden yet slightly shadowy glare of the late October sun. It was that time of year, as Mr. Snyder had said, when the world was different....

Ghosts in the airport: "Gate Time"

From my YouTube channel.

Listen to the full text of my short story, "Gate Time" (Brief text excerpt included below). It's a tale about young software salesperson who sees ghosts in airports:

Gate Time

Josh Gardner spent a lot of time in airports. That territory came with a job in software sales. As a sales rep for EntroSoft, Josh was responsible for three dozen corporate accounts in eleven states. Every week it was the same routine: airports and hotel rooms and rental cars. But EntroSoft’s commission structure was decent; and Josh preferred living out of a suitcase to being stuck in an office all day, like so many other working schmucks. It was still work—but work with a certain degree of freedom. 
Not that there was no monotony involved. Flying often meant hours stranded in an airport, waiting for a connecting flight. When the flights lined up poorly, a layover could last as long as three hours. 
The key to staying sane during a long layover was knowing how to entertain yourself. He had that problem solved. Airports were a great place for people-watching. Josh was in his early thirties and still single, so most of his people-watching involved people of the female persuasion. (And women always dressed to the nines when they flew.) But airports offered human novelties of every gender, age, and creed: foreigners babbling in incomprehensible languages, oddballs peddling flowers and handing out pamphlets, and so many businesspersons like himself. 
Josh was not shy about talking to strangers (how could you be, and survive in sales?); and he occasionally struck up a conversation with someone who might prove influential in the next deal, or even the next job. It could never hurt to pad your Rolodex. 
So Josh was not particularly taken aback when the man in the navy uniform spoke to him out of the blue. The two of them were sitting across from each other in a little island of seats in the middle of O’Hare’s Concourse B. Josh was just about to stand up and head to his gate when the sailor asked: 
“Hey buddy, can I bum a smoke?” 
The sailor was wearing a dark blue uniform and he had two chevrons on his sleeve. What did that make him? A sergeant? A corporal? Josh had never been in the military and he had no idea if the navy even had sergeants and corporals. Probably not—but no matter. The navy man must have noticed the half-full pack of Marlboros in Josh’s front shirt pocket. 
Josh had started smoking in college, and he had continued the habit off and on since then. He was currently in one of his “on” phases; but climbing back onto the nonsmokers’ wagon was an item on his immediate to-do list. 
“As a matter of fact,” Josh said, “You can have the whole pack. I’m trying to quit.” The sailor’s eyes lit up. He was a good ten years younger than Josh, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three.
 “That’d be swell. Thanks.” 
“Well, you’ve got it.” Josh stood up and pulled the pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He tossed them to the navy man. 
“You’re a—” Josh gestured to the chevrons on the navy man’s sleeve. 
“Seaman Second Class.” The navy man smiled. He apparently didn’t mind getting questions from a curious civilian. 
Josh wasn’t done. “You’ve been in the Persian Gulf? Near Afghanistan? Iraq?” 
The sailor shook his head. “Naw. I’ve been to Liverpool, Bristol. And Murmansk. That’s in Russia.” 
“Say, let me pay you for the smokes.” The sailor began digging in his pockets. 
“No. No. That’s not necessary.” 
“I insist. There’s the better part of a pack here.” 
The sailor withdrew a silvery coin from his pants pocket. Josh could tell from its size that it was a quarter. The sailor made a fist and placed the quarter on his thumbnail. He launched it with his thumb and it came rolling through the air at Josh. 
That’s a cool trick, Josh thought, as the quarter spun end over end toward his nose. He would lose face if he failed to catch it, so he shot out his hand and caught the coin in midair. He pocketed the quarter without looking at it, thinking: Cool trick, but a quarter for a nearly full pack of cigarettes? Accepting the pack gratis would have been a bit less tacky.
 “Well, you have a good trip.” Josh lifted his briefcase and carry-on bag. 
“Same to ya, buddy.” 
As he departed, Josh had a final thought: Hopefully the sailor remembered that smoking was illegal in U.S. airports. There were probably no such restrictions in Russia.... 

View the short story collection Hay Moon and Other Stories on

How Ray Bradbury's short fiction predicted the future

An article from The Valdosta Daily Times:

"Reaching back for a Ray Bradbury short-story collection is tempting just to see what the science-fiction author got right. 
In the collection “A Sound of Thunder,” Bradbury was eerie in predicting several aspects of 21st century living. 
For example, he wrote “The Murderer” in 1953 but it could just as easily have been written by an author in 2016 as satire. In “The Murderer,” people constantly receive calls and messages wherever they go. Not on cell phones but via wrist radios. “The Murderer” in the title kills technology that will not leave him alone. "

I've always enjoyed Bradbury; and his short fiction was a major influence on my own short stories--though I don't kid myself that I will ever be as prolific as he was.

Eleven Miles of Night: Reading #1

Preface: The Bridge

He stepped into the darkness of the covered bridge and told himself: Only a few more miles to go, if only your nerves and your sanity hold out, that is. 
The inside of the bridge’s enclosure smelled of mold, mildew, and the unseen waters that ran beneath it. It had the dank, black feeling of the bottom of a well. 
As he placed one foot down on the first creaking plank of the bridge, he half-remembered a nightmare: a dream of an evil presence that was vaguely female—or no, that pretended to be female. She (it?) might be a ghost or possibly something much worse. And she was lying in wait for him, like the evil witch in the children’s story, Hansel and Gretel
He took another step into the all-consuming darkness. The wood creaked again, practically groaned this time. She’s waiting for you, he thought. Whatever she (or it) is, you’ll find out before you reach the other side of this bridge.
Now why would the sound of that creaking wood trigger such thoughts?
Then he remembered: Because she had told him that she would be waiting for him here. At the bridge.....

To listen to the rest of the recordings, please visit my YouTube channel

Of interest to my fellow book nerds

Geek wire announces the best 20 books of 2016, per a vote over at Goodreads. 

I regret to say that I haven't read any of these yet, though several have been on my radar. 

(I'm still catching up on my to-read list from 2014 and 2015!)

The Two Mrs. Carrolls

As some of you may know, I’m a fan of classic movies. 

I watched this one last night. Humphrey Bogart plays an artist who slowly poisons his wife. 

Overall, not a bad thriller for 1947. That said, I much prefer Humphrey Bogart in the role of the wisecracking hero who says things like “another screwy dame” when upbraided by a sassy heroine. 

I’ve seen Bogart play the villain in a number of films, and he’s never completely convincing as the bad guy. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

‘DC Legends’ and Genre Overload

I was watching a recent episode of DC Legends of Tomorrow when I finally reached a state of genre overload.

DC Legends of Tomorrow is a weekly series on the CW. It’s a mashup of superheroes, and time travel, and science fiction.

The show mostly works, if you can suspend your disbelief and not expect too much. DC Legends, like its sister show, The Flash, is an unusual combination of likable, sympathetic characters saddled with a hokey premise, and plot lines that are more holes than substance. 

The result is that the secondary plots, the human relationships between the characters, are often far more interesting than the main action, which is so often over-the-top. 

A recent episode of DC Legends of Tomorrow transported the viewer to the Confederacy at the height of the American Civil War. (Remember: time travel). One of the lead DC Legends characters is African American, so the writers and producers of the show saw it as their duty, apparently, to say Something Significant About Racism and Slavery. 

Don’t get me wrong: Racism and the history of slavery in the antebellum South are serious and worthwhile topics. But because race and the history of racial injustice have so preoccupied us over the past 50 years, it is difficult to approach these topics from an original angle. A stupendous number of authors, filmmakers, and television producers have already beaten this subject matter to death. 

What the writers of DC Legends came up with was a series of scenes in which actor Franz Drameh fumed and monologued on the evils of slavery and racial inequality. None of what he said was untrue or unreasonable. But we’d already heard all of that, many times before.

In the context of a fantasy superhero adventure show, moreover, these scenes came across as what they were: obligatory, pro forma add-ons. The writers and producers merely wanted to cover their bases while handling Potentially Offensive Subject Matter. They were checking off boxes, in other words.

There was also a white southerner (a plantation owner, or one of his relatives) who fulfilled every cliche you’ve ever seen about white southerners with racist sentiments: He was brutish, dim-witted, and easily roused to anger by “uppity” black folks. 

Once again, nothing fundamentally unfair there, but you’ve seen that trope gazillions of times before, in film, on television, and in fiction. 

And then: zombies! It wasn't enough to have the DC Legends characters a.) be superheroes, and b.) zip around time fighting super-villains. There also had to be zombies, because—hey, zombies are everywhere nowadays!

When a group of fallen Confederate soldiers (the Confederates, to a man, were bad guys, of course) were transformed into flesh-eating zombies, the writers of DC Legends lost me—at least for that episode. 

I had experienced genre overload. A single hour of television shouldn't attempt to be superheroes, and time travel, and social justice narrative, and zombies. The writers should at least limit themselves to the best two out of three. Genres should be blended with caution, not mixed and jumbled together at random. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Why so many of my stories feature corporate characters

A reader recently remarked in an email that my stories are populated by an atypical number of corporate cubicle dwellers. 

Guilty as charged on this point. Termination Man is a corporate thriller, set in the automotive industry. Our House is a psychological thriller set in the suburbs. But the novel's main subplot involves the protagonist's workplace, and a particularly nasty form of sexual harassment. 

Even some of my horror tales ("The Vampires of Wallachia" comes immediately to mind) deal with corporate hierarchies and office politics. 

I like to think of this as a feature rather than a bug. Many novelists have spent their working lives immersed only in literature. This is why you read a lot of novels about writers and English professors. But most readers aren't writers or literature profs. Most readers work in accounting departments, on sales teams, or on the purchasing staff of various corporate entities, both large and small.

I spent 20+ years in the automotive industry, working for (and with) several well-known automakers. I suppose it's only natural that corporate settings should be a big part of my fiction.

Monday, December 12, 2016

'12 Hours of Halloween': FREE on Amazon Kindle December 13th!

A coming-of-age, Halloween horror tale of the 1980s!

Amazon book description:

The year is 1980. Jeff Schaeffer, Leah Carter, and Bobby Nagel decide to go out for "one last Halloween" before adolescence takes away their childhood forever. 

But this Halloween is different, they soon discover; and an outing that was supposed to be light-hearted and fun becomes a battle for sanity--and perhaps even survival.

From the author of the reader-acclaimed “Eleven Miles of Night”, “12 Hours of Halloween” is a coming-of-age tale unlike any you have ever read. 

A sinister teenager known as “the ghost boy” declares that Jeff Schaeffer and his friends will endure “twelve hours of trial” on Halloween. The three young people subsequently find their once familiar suburban surroundings transformed into a bizarre and terrifying landscape. 

They discover that just beneath the surface of their middle-American neighborhood lies a secret realm of haunted houses, demonically possessed trees, and spirits with unfinished business. One entity, called the “head collector”, lurks the darkened streets in search of grisly trophies.

At the same time, Jeff is forced to confront new feelings for both of his old friends. 

He believes that he is in love with Leah, but does Leah feel the same way? 

Meanwhile, his friend Bobby, who had always protected him from local bullies, now seems to harbor a dark agenda that threatens to divide and possibly destroy them all.

Get it for FREE on Amazon Kindle, Tuesday, December 13th only!