Sunday, October 15, 2017

Our House (thriller): Chapter 1

The Eavesdropper (About the book)

Thanatos Postponed: a short tale of terror

In entertainment, we're all replaceable

I was unsure of what to expect from Hawaii Five-O this season. 

I was sorry to see Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim leave the series. I thought they both added a lot to the show.

I'm pleased to report, though, that Hawaii Five-O is just as good with the new costars, Meaghan Rath and Beulah Koale. The Five-O remains on my personal television lineup. 

Hawaii Five-O isn't the kind of television that is going to change anyone's life, but it's entertaining, with fast-moving plots and sympathetic main characters. 

Actors leave successful, long-running series all the time, for various reasons. M*A*S*H lost numerous actors over its eleven seasons on the air. The final season was just as good as the first one. 

In television (and in most forms of entertainment) everyone is replaceable. 

"Dazzling sentences"

It's generally been my experience that when the reviews for a book focus on "dazzling sentences" (an exact quote from a review of a book I'm now reading), I'm in for a slow, literary read. 

I'm much more optimistic when the reviews focus on a book's "pulse-pounding excitement", i.e., the plot.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In praise of Scrivener

I recently made the leap to Scrivener, and I am in love with it. (And curmudgeon that I am, I don't fall in love all that often, I should note.) 

I now use the software for all my writing, with the exception of super-short blog posts--like the one you're now reading.

As a word processor, Scrivener is adequate; but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table that you don't already have available in Word or Apple Pages.

The real power of Scrivener, of course, is it's outlining capabilities. The software's virtual index cards make it so much easier to organize all your ideas in a visual layout.

Yes, you can outline in Word or Pages. I've outlined stories in Microsoft Excel. For that matter, you can outline on a legal pad, or with paper index cards. But trust me, Scrivener enables you to outline far more efficiently than any of these tools. 

Should you buy Scrivener? Yes, you should--even if you aren't a professional writer. Even if you don't have any interest in writing fiction. Scrivener's capabilities could be just as easily turned to the writing of essays, business documents, and even personal correspondence. (I'm very surprised that Scrivener hasn't caught on in corporate environments. As a veteran of cubicleland, I can attest to its potential usefulness there.)

Many fancy software packages are expensive. But you can own Scrivener for less that $50 at the time of this writing. So what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Writing: outlining vs. not outlining

Do I "write into the dark" like Dean Wesley Smith, or do I outline my stories like the late Robert Ludlum? 

The short answer is: some of both

Blood Flats was written literally on the fly. I began this book with only the inciting incident and the basic conflicts in mind. 

Termination Man, The Eavesdropper, and Our House, by contrast, were all outlined extensively in advance. For 12 Hours of Halloween and Eleven Miles of Night, I used a hybrid method: I plotted out the major incidents of these stories in advance, and wrote the individual scenes "into the dark".

There is no "wrong" way or "right" way in this regard. Stephen King's early novels are incredibly tight and focused, despite being written without an outline. (I can only imagine how difficult the writing of The Stand was without an outline.) 

John Grisham, on the other hand, always works from an outline. Grisham has said that he spends more time on the outline of each book than on the actual writing. Think about that for a moment. But The Firm is one of the most original, suspenseful novels ever written.

And yet...herein we can also see the pitfalls of both methods. I love (most of) King's books and (most of) Grisham's books. But as both writers have churned out more work, the inherent weaknesses of their respective methods have become apparent. 

King's later works (Doctor Sleep, 11/22/63, Under the Dome) are too long, meandering, and drawn-out. In these books, the tight story structure of The Shining, Christine, and The Dead Zone is missing. I suspect this is a result of King's insistence on "winging it". (Stephen King is opposed to outlining on principle, based on various statements he's made over the years.) 

Grisham's work, meanwhile, is sometimes formulaic. Read enough of his books, and you'll start to notice common elements that appear again and again: a hidden pile of ill-gotten money, a lawyer facing a moral quandary, a conspiracy involving government or a large corporation, a race to the Cayman Islands, etc. 

I want to repeat: Both King and Grisham are great writers. I recently read (and loved) Camino Road. The point here is not to trash either King or Grisham. The point is to emphasize that a.) if you're a rigid non-outliner, you may develop a tendency to meander too much, and b.) if you're a rigid outliner, you may find, after a while, that you're repeating yourself. (As Dean Wesley Smith has said, your conscious mind will tend to go to the same plots and solutions that it's most familiar with.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Internet, and the perils of eating with plastic

The other day I did something rather boneheaded. I was eating some fruit with a plastic fork and talking at the same time.

Kind of like walking and chewing gum at the same time, eating while talking requires multitasking skills that are beyond some of us. During one of my bites, I simultaneously made an emphatic statement that caused me to bite down on my plastic fork and break off the tip of one of the fork’s tines.

Then I did something even dumber. Rather than spitting out the mouthful of fruit, I felt around with my tongue for the tip of the fork tine. Feeling nothing, I concluded that the errant plastic fragment had fallen to the floor or shot across the room. So I swallowed the mouthful of fruit.

My subsequent conclusion, a few short minutes later: I had probably swallowed the fork tine.

I immediately grew nervous. What does a plastic fork tine do to the human digestive system? Or to get more to the point: How long did I have to live?

I took my question to that font of collected wisdom and boundless information: the Internet.

At first I was consoled to find that I am far from the only person on the planet to have swallowed the tine of a plastic fork. If the frequency of the Internet search, “I swallowed a plastic fork tine” is any indication, a person must swallow a fork fragment somewhere on the planet about every six seconds.

But the actual information I found was decidedly a mixed bag.

This is the kind of question that people frequently take to Internet forums, and the resultant commentary quickly became predictable. I don’t know how many comments I came across like, “You’re forked!” and “Only tine will tell!”. I mean really, people: I understand the tineless appeal of puns. But when someone has swallowed a part of a plastic eating utensil, a certain degree of seriousness is in order.

I also found out that a man in the United Kingdom swallowed an entire plastic fork more than a decade ago. The good news? He was able to live with a fork in his stomach for more than ten years. The bad news? He eventually required surgery to remove the thing. (And just how does a person swallow an entire plastic fork, anyway?)

I also found out that there are eating disorders that compel people to consume inedible items like glass, plastic, and metal in copious amounts. One fellow has apparently eaten an entire airplane.

I learned that while gastric acid is very powerful stuff that can dissolve metal, it doesn’t do anything to plastic, because plastic is chemically inert. 

All this was quite interesting. But I still didn’t know: Was I going to be okay?

I went to some of the online forums that are purportedly manned by physicians, a suspicious number of which seem to be based in India. The physicians had no real consensus regarding the swallowing of a plastic fork tine. 

About half of the doctors in the various threads said that it was nothing to worry about. At least a few had stated that if you have ingested a potentially sharp piece of plastic, you should report to your local ER forthwith.

Of course, they can’t find a tiny piece of plastic in your gullet with an x-ray. So what exactly would the ER physicians do with you, absent any symptoms? Would they lock you in an isolation room, and wait for you to either double over in pain, or cry out?

I finally decided to let nature take its course. Almost a week has passed since I foolishly swallowed a plastic fork tine. (Or maybe it really did shoot out of my mouth and across the room. I’m not sure.)

What I can report is that I have yet to develop excruciating abdominal pains, and everything is moving from one end of my alimentary canal to the other without problems. (Yes, too much information, I know.)

My takeaways from this experience are twofold: First, if you ever suspect that a plastic fork tine has broken off in your mouth, don't mess around. Don’t swallow anything. Spit everything out, and start from scratch. If you are at all prone to anxiety, you simply don’t want that on your head.

And if you actually have a medical question that needs answered, forget about the Internet. The Internet is practically useless for anything serious. Do it the old-fashioned way, and go see a doctor.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Reading, writing—and exercising

I’m an efficiency junkie. I have always been obsessed with the restricted nature of our available time (both at the lifetime, macro-level, as well as at the daily, micro-level). 

This tendency was exacerbated by the years I spent in the Japanese corporate world, with its focus on concepts like takt time, and the prevention of muda.

As a writer, too, I am obsessed with efficiency. I constantly think about improving my brainstorming techniques. One cannot really standardize the artistic process, but there are ways of improving the generation and development of ideas, of prodding the mind, so to speak. I’ve purchased Dragon Dictate software so that I can write hands-free. Last month I finally bought Scrivener, an invaluable tool for the organization of any long-form piece of writing. 

I’m also an exercise junkie. I spend at least an hour a day doing some form of cardio. I began running in the summer of 1984, as a means to lose weight. Since that long-ago summer, rarely has a day passed when I haven't run, walked, or tortured myself on a cardio machine. 

Overall, that hour per day has been an hour well spent. Yes, there are those who would disagree,  but I’m not interested in debating them. For our purposes here, I’m going to skip the question of whether cardio is the “right” or “optimal” way to exercise. (This is a point of controversy in fitness circles.) I’m also going to conveniently omit any discussion of “alternative” cardio regimes, such as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. 

So what I’m talking about here is the conventional cardio workout, done at an ambitious but not overly taxing pace. The problem is: conventional cardio takes time. If you do an hour of conventional cardio per day, that’s seven hours per week—almost as much time as the standard workday. That’s 30 hours per month, or 75% of the standard 40-hour workweek. Annually, that comes up to 45 standard 8-hour workdays, the equivalent of taking a month and a half completely off. 

If you’re obsessed with efficiency, you simply have to find a way to use this time productively. I do the obvious things: Whenever I’m on an exercise bike or the treadmill, I have something to read. (I’ve read plenty of books that I’ve never touched when I’m not on a cardio machine.) While walking, I listen to audiobooks on my iPod. 

But these are examples of content consumption. Content creation—writing—while exercising is a different matter, of course. 

I don’t have a home treadmill, and so I haven't made the leap to a treadmill desk. I’ve tried writing on my iPhone while I’m pedaling my sole piece of home cardio equipment: a Schwinn recumbent stationary bike. While this is doable, I’ve generally found that the resultant output doesn't justify the effort and workout interruption involved. 

I have, however, used cardio time for brainstorming story concepts, and the details of chapters within a novel. For brainstorming, walking beats every form of cardio, hands down. Charles Dickens routinely walked as many as 20 miles per day. It was during these walks that he worked out the plots of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and his other novels. 

I don’t run as much as I used to because of foot problems; but there is no reason you couldn't brainstorm a story during a five-mile run, as well. In years past, I’ve had some of my best ideas while running. Oxygen and the brain—there’s something special about that combination. 

Crime writer Michael Connelly has said that when you’re a writer, you’re “always writing”—even while you’re having dinner with your family, and socializing with friends. You’re always working on stories in your head, in other words. 

For some people, this might be taking the quest for artistic efficiency too far. But if you have a daily cardio routine, there are plenty of ways to make your time on the treadmill or the running track more productive. Charles Dickens could have told you this, way back in the 1800s. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Novel of the week: TERMINATION MAN

For those of you who enjoyed my recently published corporate conspiracy thriller, THE EAVESDROPPER, allow me to introduce my earlier high-crimes-in-the-boardroom novel, TERMINATION MAN:



Get it on Amazon Kindle for $0.99 through September 23rd

TERMINATION MAN is on sale for just $0.99 through September 23rd! That's almost free!



The Termination Man is a hotshot corporate consultant who will use any trick to eliminate the Fortune 500’s unwanted, problem employees. A fast-paced, intelligent workplace thriller that will keep you guessing until the last page!



Amazon Description:

A long forgotten double murder of two young women in Ohio. A struggling corporation in turmoil. Two powerful men, two bitter rivals, each one hiding his own secrets. One driven by lust and rage, the other driven by a conflicted sense of right and wrong. 


***TERMINATION MAN***

“The novel that takes an unflinching look at the dark underside of the 21st century workplace.”


CRAIG WALKER is a hotshot young MBA with his own consulting firm. He’s handsome, rich, and in demand. His Fortune 500 clients—the most powerful men and women in industry—call him “The Termination Man.”

Craig Walker is no ordinary management consultant. He’s a spook, a workplace spy. Assuming false identities, Craig works undercover, building the evidence that will allow his corporate clients to terminate unwanted employees without legal repercussions. His targets are the troublemakers, the agitators, the employees whom management believes are no longer “good fits” for their hyper-competitive organizations.  

Craig Walker believes that he serves the cause of economic efficiency, and in a way, the greater good. Most of his targets don’t like their jobs anyway. In a free market, “a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes an employee needs to leave a bad a situation.”

SHAWN MYERS is a manager at TP Automotive, a global giant in the automotive industry. Shawn struggles to control his lust and rage, and to escape a hideous past that might catch up with him at any moment. His forbidden desire for a girl young enough to be his daughter threatens to drive him over the edge.


When TP Automotive hires the Termination Man to remove two innocent employees from its payroll, Craig Walker is forced to reexamine his notions of justice and morality. But these questions are soon overwhelmed by the dangers that he faces from the TP Automotive management team. After Shawn Myers commits a heinous act in Craig’s presence, the Termination Man discovers that his new clients will resort to any means in order to protect one of their own.



Excerpt from Chapter 1: "The Termination Man goes to work..."

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.


My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a "Union Yes" baseball cap.


I certainly didn't look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.


I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named "Ben" might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn't Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.


I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin's picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin's evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.


The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:



Friday, September 15, 2017

Stephen King, and the weird sex scene in “It”

I haven't read It in many decades, but in light of the recent It movie release, I decided to take a gander at some reader reviews that have come out over the last few years.

Stephen King’s books are popular—and not without reason. King captivated me as a reader in 1984, when I was a teenager. At that point in my life, there was no way I was going to read any literature that was even remotely challenging. But Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), a novel about vampires taking over a small town in rural Maine? Yeah, I was all about that. 

Many readers have felt—and continue to feel—the same way. 

That said, there are some idiosyncratic aspects of It, King’s mammoth 1986 novel (dubbed his magnum opus at the time) that draw justifiable criticism. Here is an excerpt from a critical review found on Goodreads:


“And, the scene which blew me away and pretty much made me feel I had wasted time getting that far in: a gang-bang consisting of nothing but 11 and 12-year-olds. What the F***? And when I say "gang bang" I mean it--six boys banging the girl back-to-back. Only abnormal people do not raise an eyebrow at this scene and try to defend it as being "natural" and "normal." It's neither and most decent people would be bothered by this segment.”


I read It in September 1986, shortly after the book was first published. (I once owned one of the original hardcover editions, now lost to time and multiple changes of residence.) I was only eighteen years old then, a freshman in college. I was not that much older than the preteen protagonists in the story. 

Nevertheless, that above-described sex scene struck me as bizarre, even then. You don’t have to be well into middle age (as I am now) to read a scene like that and say, “Whoa, Nelly, something’s a little awry here.” 

None of the books King had published before It had contained anything quite like this. And It was chock-full of other oddities as well. (Read the full text of the Goodreads review I cited.) The novel definitely rambles in places; and the story doesn't quite support the massive length. 

As a new reader of It thirty-odd years ago, I felt let down. Every Stephen King novel up to It was a tightly constructed, finely tuned work of art. This was true of Carrie (1974)—the shortest of his early novels—as well as his post-apocalyptic epic, The Stand (1978), which weighed in at over one thousand pages.

What accounts for the shift? King has been open about his substance abuse issues during the 1980s. This may have been a factor. Minimal editorial oversight likely also played a role. By 1986, Stephen King had become a household name, a celebrity author. (In October, 1986, King was featured on the cover of Time magazine, no less.) It was sometime around 1986 that King quipped that he could publish his grocery list, and the document would sell a million copies. This claim wasn’t—and isn’t—that far from the truth. Can you blame an editor for assuming that the King new best? Perhaps not. 




But the finished product nevertheless suffered. Prior to reading It, Stephen King was my favorite novelist, bar none. It was the novel whereby Stephen King started to “lose” me as a reader. 

Don’t get me wrong: I continued to read his novels and short story collections. (I still read them.) But the sense of awe that his early novels gave me had gone. 

Should you read It, if you haven't already? I would say: yes. Despite its many flaws, It is still a worthwhile book, and probably a lot more entertaining than the most recent offering from Jonathan Franzen. 

But if you’re one of those rare fiction readers who hasn’t yet sampled Stephen King, I would start with one of his earlier titles—The Shining, Carrie, Pet Sematary, Cujo, etc. 

You’ll be far more impressed with the books that King wrote before It…and you won’t have to read scenes containing orgies among 12-year-olds.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Feature book: ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT

Today's feature book is ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT.


A college student-filmmaker takes a nighttime walk down the most haunted road in Ohio. 

Experience eleven miles of nerve-jangling supernatural terror--as he faces malevolent spirits and horrifying entities at every turn.



Amazon description:

Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. 

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. 

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.


More about ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT:

I live in southern Ohio, where there is no shortage of reputedly haunted roads, and roads that are the sources of various urban legends.

ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT is the ultimate haunted road tale: Herein you'll find demons that disguise themselves as little girls, hellhounds, and an undead witch that haunts a covered bridge.

You'll also encounter trees and scarecrows that come to life, and a red-eyed creature that hovers near the edge of the woods.

I'll admit it: I had fun packing the monsters and urban legends into this novel.

I also enjoyed the characters: Jason Kelley is a young man who wants to achieve his dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. But to claim his next big break, he has to walk down eleven miles of the most terrifying two-lane highway in Ohio, the so-called Shaman's Highway.

Even before the horror begins, Jason already has a lot on his mind: He has to sort out what he will do about his dysfunctional but clingy parents, and the young woman who has captured his heart but demands more than he is (perhaps) capable of giving.

Oh, and during his walk down the Shaman's Highway, he has an unexpected encounter with another young man who may turn out to be just as dangerous as the supernatural threats.

Welcome to ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT!



Chapter 10 Excerpt: "Eyes at Honeysuckle Pond":

The total area of the pond would have perhaps equaled a football field, though its shape was irregular, roughly that of a lemon wedge. At various points along the bank there were little fork-shaped wooden stands where customers could place their cane poles and graphite and carbon fiber rods.

Jason guessed that the pond had closed at dusk. This would mean that people had been fishing here less than two hours ago. In the darkness, however, the pond seemed lonelier than that, as if no humans had walked along these banks for a long, long time.

Jason added these sentiments to his narration. "Any place on Shaman's Highway is a lonely place after dark," he noted. "Even a public fishing pond." In the nearest corner of the pond, he could see lily pads and tangled mats of algae that were encroaching on the water, along with some clumps of cattails. The pond gave off its own odor: a green, gamey smell that suggested this would be an active breeding site for mosquitoes and aquatic gnats. As he walked closer to the water's edge, he heard the plunk! of a bullfrog taking a dive into the water.

He scanned the near bank of the pond with the camcorder, taking in the shoreline's green and black night-vision-enhanced shapes and adding a few more bits of narration. He pushed the camcorder's pause button and lowered it. What more could you say or record about Honeysuckle Pond after dark?

A moving flash of white caught his attention in the glow of the moonlight. Then another, and another. His heart accelerated momentarily, until he realized that it was a small gaggle of geese. There were four birds in total. These specimens were not the black-necked Canadian geese. These were the white-feathered variety; and their snow-colored plumage seemed to be made for a moonlit night. Jason marveled that he had not noticed them sooner.

The geese were swimming around in the middle of the pond, in the spot that would be the farthest from any of the surrounding banks. The birds were moving in a tight, disciplined circle (as disciplined as geese could be, anyway). From the shoreline, Jason could hear the sounds of them gently paddling through the still water.

He raised the camcorder and began recording again. The birds were green and far less impressive in the night vision.

"It seems like I'm not alone here," Jason said. He made an effort to make his voice sound eerie and suggestive, as Simon Rose and his ghost-hunting underlings sometimes did when narrating footage. But what was scary about geese?

Nothing scary, but strange: To the best of Jason's knowledge, waterfowl weren't nocturnal. Wouldn't the geese ordinarily be nesting on the bank during the night?

Unless they were afraid of something on the bank.


The idea came to him unbidden; and he immediately dismissed it as his imagination on overdrive yet once again. But then he reconsidered: There were plenty of perfectly mundane and natural creatures that could spook geese. It didn't have to be something supernatural. The geese might have been made restless by a raccoon or a stray dog. There might even be lynx or coyotes in these woods. Both of the latter were indigenous to Ohio, Jason believed.

Jason looked away from the geese, abruptly lowering the camcorder. In the woods behind the pond, something had moved in the amorphous mass of trees. And whatever this was, it was not likely one of the tiny animals that he had heard earlier. Nor had the sounds been made by a raccoon or a bobcat. This was something big. Beyond the initial tree line, the woods melted into pockets of impenetrable darkness.

About seven feet off the ground, Jason saw--or thought he saw--a pair of red eyes flash briefly among the trees. The eyes disappeared. Then they flashed again.


He felt his legs turn to jelly.

Jason felt the impulse to run. But no--he would not allow himself to be scared away again.

You're here to do a job, dammit. Get control of yourself. 


The graveyard had been nothing more than an old cemetery made spooky by its isolation and the moonlight. This was something else entirely:  Since setting out along the Shaman's Highway, this was his first sighting of something that might be fairly called a phenomenon. The eyes in the trees were not his imagination; and there was no natural explanation for them.

He held the camcorder up to his shoulder and aimed it in the direction of the forest. Through the camcorder's eyepiece, there was not much that he could make out: little more than an indistinguishable mass of trees and blank darkness.

Yet he had seen something--something that had briefly shown itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. And now that something had withdrawn--but perhaps not completely. And Jason faced a question:

Will you pursue it into those woods--whatever is attached to that pair of red eyes? 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Readers are liking OUR HOUSE

A young couple, currently residing in an apartment, buys a house in the suburbs. Their first home purchase, the American dream.

But the previous owner of the house retains an obsession with the home. The house has a dark secret.

This is the premise of OUR HOUSE. There are no supernatural elements in this novel. No inhuman monsters. There are no Islamic terrorists. 

OUR HOUSE is, rather, a thriller novel about the evils that lie buried in normal surroundings—spawned by bad decisions, and ordinary human emotions gone awry.

I had written this novel a few years ago, and done little to promote it at the time. I recently ran some promotions on the book, and as a result, it is found its way onto thousands of Kindles.

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with a few exceptions. 

I would be the first to admit that OUR HOUSE is a quirky novel, somewhat difficult to classify. The villains are not what you would usually find in a thriller. The antagonistic team consists of a middle-aged woman with potentially homicidal tendencies, and her two young adult children, who are equally warped.

The novel is, interestingly enough, based on a true story that was told to me shortly before I began the book. 

There are, of course, lots of embellishments in the novel that finally arose from the real-life story. But aren’t there always? 





A young family. A dream house with a psychotic ex-owner and a horrible secret. A claustrophobic suburban thriller that will keep you guessing!


Chapter 18 Excerpt: "A visitor in the night":

Jennifer awoke to the sound of the doorbell. She had been in the middle of a deep sleep; and the bell rang several times before she fully grasped its significance. She sat up in bed, a sudden rush of adrenaline banishing her sleepiness. She looked at the clock beside the bed: 2:49 a.m.

She didn't turn on any additional lights, not even one of the lights in the bedroom. She wanted to have the element of surprise on her side. Sliding into the slippers she kept beside the bed, she steeled herself for the confrontation that was likely coming. Then she grabbed her robe from one of the bedposts.

Maybe you shouldn't go downstairs, she thought. It might be better to call the Mydale Police Department again. Let them handle it.

Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Ding-dong! The ringing was becoming more persistent now.

No. It was now clear that the cat had been no random sick prank. The person on the front porch was someone she knew--and the person could only be either Jim Lindsay or Deborah Vennekamp. Whichever one it was, her tormentor was trying to unnerve her.

Before going downstairs, she stopped by Connor's room. (There was no hurry--the person at the front door didn't seem to be going away.) Her son shifted in his bedclothes and rolled over. Luckily, Connor was a sound sleeper. She closed the door of his bedroom. Hopefully, he would sleep through whatever was about to happen.

She walked carefully down the stairs. An indistinct flash of movement appeared in one of the windows on the right side of the front door. By the time she reached the first-floor foyer, the ringing had stopped.

Turning the doorknob with one hand, and releasing the deadbolt lock with the other, she had second thoughts: It might be a serial killer. It might be a rapist.

It wasn't a serial killer or a rapist. It was either Deborah or Jim, and either one of those two would quickly retreat if resolutely confronted.

Jennifer flung the door open. Whoever had rung the doorbell had run away--but Jennifer suspected that he or she had not run far. Her first instinct was to look immediately to her right and left. There were shrubs in both directions, but they were insufficient cover for a full grown adult of either sex. And none of the shrubs showed any sign of movement.

She glanced down and noticed what had been left for her: not a dead cat this time, but words scrawled in chalk on the surface of the porch: "GET OUT!"


"Nice," she said aloud, doing her best to maintain a steady voice. The person--either Deborah or Jim--would be out there somewhere: where she could not easily see them, but still within earshot. Perhaps she could draw the perpetrator out, goad him or her into the open.

"That's really brave: You ring my doorbell and you run away. You leave dead animals and stupid messages on my porch. Well, I want you to know that I'm not afraid of you. I also want you to know that I know who you are. And unless you stop this now, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. So why don't you just stop all this?"

Silence. In the still of this early morning hour, the front yard took on an eerie appearance, even with the multiple outside floodlights. The trees and shrubs further out in the yard were impenetrable shadows. The dew glistened on the grass, where more shadows played.

"Do you hear me?" she said. Every hair on her body seemed to be standing up now, but she did not care. It was time for this to stop.

There was a rustling in one of the shrubs toward the far edge of the front yard. That area was beyond the full intensity of the floodlights, but there was enough illumination for her eyes to detect traces of movement.

"Who's there?" she called out. When the unseen intruder refused to answer, she was torn between two competing convictions. First there was the belief that she had made a mistake, confronting the intruder alone like this. That was followed by anger: This was nothing more than an elaborate charade concocted by either Deborah Vennekamp or Jim Lindsay, neither of whom intimidated her in real life.

"I have a gun," she said. But this bluff did not, she knew, sound convincing. She was backlit by the front porch lights, and both of her hands would be visible. If she truly had a gun, she would have brandished it by now.

There was more movement, and then a figure stepped out of the shadows. Jennifer squinted in the poor light, expecting to see the face of one of her two known tormentors.

What she saw instead did not resemble a person at all. She gasped, and shrank back toward the still open front doorway.

Her first association was the Minotaur of ancient Greek mythology. Two massive horns emerged from the darkness, and below them the snout of a bull, its mouth contorted in an unnatural grimace. All of this was atop a human frame, though that frame was clad in a single dark, flowing robe that obscured any indication of age or gender. The bull's head also made it difficult for her to accurately assess its height.

She now saw that this, too, was an elaborately structured illusion: It was not a Minotaur at all--but a person clad in a robe and a realistic mask.

"Who are you?" she shouted.

The bull's head swung slowly from side to side, its gaping mouth unwavering. The message was clear: The person beneath the mask was not going to be tricked into self-identification.

What followed was a pregnant moment, as Jennifer watched the person in the bull mask, and the other party presumably watched her, through eyes that were hidden beneath the mask.

Then the figure reached into the robe and withdrew a cylindrical object. Jennifer noticed that the person was wearing gloves, though her attention was focused on the object in his/her right hand.

A second later the object came hurtling toward her. The throw had come without any warning. Jennifer dodged to one side, and was aware of the sound of breaking glass and a few drops of wetness on the bare skin of her neck...

Monday, September 11, 2017

On that Stephen King boycott

Just in case you weren’t aware, Stephen King really, really doesn’t like Donald Trump, and he’s made no bones about expressing his opinions (mostly on Twitter, but elsewhere, too). 

Donald Trump has never been known to let an insult go unanswered. According to Stephen King, President Trump has blocked him on Twitter. 

So Stephen King retaliated—with a public statement to the effect that Donald Trump would not be welcome at showings of IT, the remade movie version of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. (How Stephen King intended to enforce this ban was unclear.)

The matter didn't end there, of course. (Does anyone ever just let a subject drop, nowadays?) A group of Donald Trump supporters have responded by calling for a boycott not only of IT—but of all Stephen King’s books and movies. The boycott has achieved questionable success at the time of this writing, but that could always change.

Are you with me so far? Yes, this is the sort of tragicomic absurdity that only the twenty-first century could provide.

Let’s begin with Stephen King. I’ve been following Stephen King since 1984, when he had already achieved a measure of fame, but had not yet been catapulted to the megastar bestselling writer-emeritus status that defines him today.

Stephen King has never been particularly shy about his politics; and his politics have always leaned sharply to the left. Stephen King is a product of the 1960s student revolts; and his political statements are typically the boilerplate of that era, updated slightly to fit modern times.

But in the 1980s, Stephen King seldom allowed his politics to stand in the way of his integrity as a writer. Back in the Reagan era, he would occasionally make a passing statement in an interview about his displeasure with the GOP. But I emphasize: a passing statement. There were a few political biases in his short stories and novels; but these were no more than average, and mostly forgivable.

The 21st-century version of Stephen King is a different writer, entirely. And this notable shift didn’t begin with the Trump administration—just in case you’re inclined to blame the 45th President for King’s aberrations. King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a thinly veiled diatribe against Republicans, social conservatives, and evangelical Christians. The villains in Under the Dome are cardboard cutouts, paranoid projections of everything that Stephen King imagines red-state Americans to be. The novel represents a sad decline for the genius who once penned The Stand (1978), The Shining (1977), and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975).

And the sad ironies don’t stop there. 

I recall reading IT in 1986, when the book was first released. There is a scene in which one of the main characters, William "Bill" Denbrough, is harassed by a creative writing instructor who wants him to weave a political message into every piece of his writing. Denbrough rebels, with the observation that, “Politics always change. Stories never do.” A story should just be a story. 

Think about that one for a moment: Politics always change, stories never do. 

I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman at the time, and just beginning to consider the intersections between politics, literature, and popular culture. Nevertheless, the quote had a profound impact on me, and it has shaped my public conduct as I have begun writing and publishing fiction.  

I don’t believe that fiction writers necessarily need to hide their political views. There is a point, however, when the politically zealous fiction writer reaches a crossroads. At that point, it is necessary to make a choice: Is the writer primarily a storyteller, or is the writer primarily a political activist who occasionally dabbles in writing fiction? 

Stephen King, we might argue, has long since chosen to become the latter. Although he still produces the occasional page-turner, the quality of his writing has declined significantly since I first began reading him. Most of his really good novels were published in the last century. Nowadays, he is just as likely to make the news for his political activism as for his fiction.

But what about Donald Trump? We mustn’t let him off the hook, either. Donald Trump is, perhaps, our first thoroughly 21st-century president in the way he conducts himself. Like the Internet itself, Trump favors the broad brush over subtlety, outlandish bombast over carefully worded analysis. 

Many of Trump’s frothing opponents are mildly deranged. (Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, has recently been documented by the American Psychological Association as a bonafide—but hopefully temporary—mental disorder.) That said, there is plenty of room to criticize the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

And, of course, Trump has an addiction to Twitter—which he should have discarded when he left Manhattan for the White House. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s policy positions, his style as chief executive leaves much to be desired.

I might close with a few predictions about the boycott of IT. Like the simplistic and caustic Internet meme, the Internet-based boycott has become yet another weapon in our endlessly weaponized political debates. 

Liberals routinely boycott every institution that veers even slightly away from their doctrinaire narratives on the politics of race, sexual orientation, and gender. (Recall the Chick-fil-A boycott of a few years ago, after the CEO of the company expressed a personal adherence to traditional norms, where the institution of marriage was concerned.) 

Conservatives, of late, have taken to boycotting institutions that impose draconian standards of political correctness. (There is presently a movement afoot to boycott Google, which takes a Stalinesque approach to any political discussion involving race, sexual orientation, or gender.)

And, of course, Trump supporters now regularly boycott celebrities who go out of their way to trash the president. This is how Stephen King found himself the target of this present boycott.

The Stephen King boycott may have a marginal effect over the long haul. There is a cumulative factor at work here. Stephen King has gone out of his way in recent years to become the celebrity writer version of that obnoxious cocktail party guest who won’t shut up about his politics. Stephen King no longer regards himself as merely a bestselling writer, but as a bestselling writer emeritus. This makes him an all-around expert on all the affairs of the world. As noted above, King’s political obsessions have tainted his writing for well over a decade. A lot of people were aware of his shenanigans before the recent brouhaha. 

But every boycott produces a counter-boycott. After leftwing activists announced their boycott of that nefarious chicken restaurant, conservatives made the support of Chick-fil-A a political cause célèbre. For several weeks, the Chick-fil-A near my house (in semi-rural southern Ohio) was standing-room only. The line at the drive-through was always ten to twelve cars long. On balance, Chik-fil-A probably made money from the boycott.

The same might turn out to be true for Stephen King. Without the boycott, IT is just another story that has been around for 30 years, in one form or another. Like I said, I read the book as an 18-year-old college freshman; and I’m now pushing fifty. (IT has already been adapted for the screen, too—in the form of a 1990 TV miniseries.) 

But a certain percentage of the population will flock to the theaters if the movie can be framed as a strike against Donald Trump. Because some people, in our current environment, absolutely live for that sort of thing. 

But Stephen King probably doesn't care all that much. Not really. He already has a net worth of $400 million. He isn't going to lose any sleep if a few million Trump supporters stay home from the cinema premiere of IT. Attention spans are perilously short nowadays. King figures he’ll get their money a few years down the road in DVD sales, when they’ve moved on to something else. 

So don’t look for the Stephen King boycott to have any measurable effect on Stephen King’s public behavior. King is going to continue shooting his mouth off on Twitter and anywhere else he can. As will Donald Trump. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The plot must justify the length

I'm a big fan of gangster movies. (I've seen all the Godfather movies multiple times.) At least two of my novels, The Eavesdropper and Blood Flats, have organized criminal elements.

I was expecting to like Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Directed by Sergio Leone, the movie explores the lives of a group of (fictional) Jewish New York gangsters during the first half of the twentieth century. 


The movie also stars James Woods and Robert De Niro. I assumed that the combination of such talent would result in a great movie.

I assumed incorrectly. Once Upon a Time in America is a four-hour film that drags on and on, jumping across various storylines and subplots. 

The characters are not very likable, even if their despicable actions might be partially justified by their surroundings and circumstances. There are no real heroes—in the classic sense—in this movie.

I miss many aspects of life in the 1980s. I’m sad to say, however, that the 1980s was not a great era in American film. Once Upon a Time in America only adds to the decade’s dismal cinematic legacy.

If a director is going to make a four-hour movie, then the plot had better be tight, compelling, and fully deserving of four hours of the viewer’s time. Once Upon a Time in America simply doesn't rise to that standard.