Thursday, December 31, 2009

From A Rhetorical Perspective

Again...not a political blog, but rather a question of rhetoric, something I've been studying on my own thanks to opencourseware from M.I.T.

In the current forum of public discourse people are mulling over the recent attempt at a bombing on an airplane coming into Detroit. My representative, Candace Miller, in an interview on public radio, was irate that the young man was being prosecuted as a criminal, insisting that he should have been handed over to the military where experts could work on him with aggressive interrogation techniques (her words).

Here is the question for people who enter into this discourse. If you disapproved of hate crime legislation, arguing that it was unnecessary and that intent was unimportant, then how can you now argue that this young man should be tried as a terrorist? What points of debate would you use? Note, I'm just pondering this from a rhetorical perspective and not a political one. I know, I know, politicians don't have to be consistent, nor do pundits, but it's fascinating, isn't it? I wish the interviewer had asked this question, or better yet, I would love to hear two informed individuals sit across the table from one another and enter into a dialog (and by dialog, I mean listening and responding to one another in a calm and intelligent manner).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Making Lists and Checking Them Twice

Before the year ends, let me post some of the books that have left an impression on me over the last twelve months. I should do it for the decade...but most of the decade is a haze.

PETER PAN by M. Barrie
I was astonished at how smartly written this was. Aimed at children and adults, it presented not only a magical world which the little ones could roam around in, but it offered a Freudian glimpse at the adult psyche and explored the difficulty that some have with relationships due to the tensions of personal development. Of course, it did this with a smile and a nod. And then there was Tinkerbelle. Hot. Very hot.


This is how to bring history to life. Roosevelt has received no small amount of criticism from the right (Glenn Beck) due to his role in the progressive movement, but those critics should read this book and Morris' "Theodore Rex" to educate themselves regarding the man, his actions, and how those decisions were made in context of their times. This is brilliantly written and a vivid portrait. More importantly, it is carefully researched and sources are carefully noted.


I stood up and applauded after reading this account of the Battle of the Bulge. Kershaw follows one platoon through the battle, through their capture and the time they spent in the prisoner of war camps. I rarely cry when reading a book, but I will state here that tears streamed as I neared the end of the book and felt the pain of those who refused to give up hope in the face of death. This is masterpiece of non-fiction. Kershaw knows what details to include and is careful to bring his figures to life without adding his own words. Again, careful research and exhaustive interviews have paid off.

Sometimes we read a book because we want to and sometimes we read a book because we feel we should. I forced myself through this abomination. Ford is one of those tiresome writers who the new literary circles hold up for our admiration. He is undeserving. He goes off on tangents, has no sense of economy, and writes as though his every thought is worthy of our attention. This novel is a tremendous conceit. I've read several other novels in this category this year, among them "The Namesake", "The Kiterunner", and an anthology by R. Carver "Catherdral". I mention these here because they have helped solidify my appreciation of enduring literature by reminding me that the self-absorbed and trendy world of the literary elite is self-perpetuating and often shows little appreciation for the real reader or the real world. It always astonishes me when the working class is written about by those who have lost touch with it or never had any connection to begin with.

GET REAL D. Westlake
This was not a good book, but it's here because it is the last Donald Westlake novel written. Westlake passed away last year. The novel has its moments, but reading it, reminds one of Westlake's better creations such as "Dancing Aztecs", "The Hot Rock," "Fugitive Pigeon" and "The Busy Body". Just pick up one of the Dortmunder and Kelp books. They are well plotted and Westlake knows how to make you laugh. "Dancing Aztecs" was a scream.

Honorable mentions: "The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Daoz" by Diaz, "Murder On the Links" by Christie, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" by Christie, "Tales of Dark Wisdom" by Jones, " Memorial Day" by Flynn, "Small Favor" by Butcher, "How Fiction Works" by Woods.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Feeling All Tense

All men want to be me. All women want to be with me....

Now where was I. Ah yes, present tense.

I have recently noticed that several authors I've been encountering have been jumping into the present tense pool without waiting an hour after eating. As a result they splash their readers and ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Here is an example, just so we're all clear, what I'm talking about:

"I'm standing on the corner, waiting for Tillet, listening to a song inside my head. It's begins with a raucous bass line and some outstanding guitar. I tap my feet and hear the first growl of lyrics..."

When I see someone using tense like this my first thought is WHY? I believe in deliberate writing, and I hope that when they started working that they had a deliberate purpose. I hope they thought: "I'm going to use present tense for reason "A" and "B".  Too often it's a marker, an overused literary device where the author is actually jumping up and down screaming: “Look at me, I’m a serious writer. I’m stepping outside the box and being bravely literary.”

More often than not, it's probably laziness.

The author just comes with it, not bothering to worry about structure and offering a defense of spontaneity. Others will defend this pretentiousness by lamely offering: "It breaks down the wall between the reader and the author. It's what James Wood, the literary critic, would refer to as 'free indirect style'."


Yesterday I read about two chapters of Nancy Mauro's "New World Monkeys". Mauro was an advertising creative director and copywriter in Canada and the United States. And then most recently, she received an MFA. Now, she writes in present tense. To be fair, I'll probably return to her book and see if I can fight my way past this distraction, but as I read through the opening I kept asking: "What? Why are we in present tense? Why? WHY? WHY?!!!!"

Writers, stop distracting the readers by stepping outside the box when stepping outside the box is an empty gesture. Stop trying to break convention for the sake of breaking convention. You owe it to the reader and to the form.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"I used Aardvark to do a search for information about security details and the Navy."

He looked at me, bemused. "You did what?"

"I'm writing a story about a vessel in WWII and things happen on the ship. I needed to get information on how security might have been handled. I ended up communicating with some informative folk."

He shook his head. "You know that Homeland Security is going to have you tagged."

I laughed and shook my head, about to disagree. That's when I remembered the searches I had been doing about the Wolf Creek nuclear reactor and the National Guard armory in Illinois. Legitimate searches for a novel I'm writing. But surely, no one pay attention . I'm doing research. Right?

It's a funny thing about the black heliocopters. You don't notice them until they're there. And the guys in the suits lounging on the street corner? They blend.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Late Night Conversation

The following conversation was overheard late in the evening as I drowsed in a chair. I recall three distinct voices.

"Dad, the cat is crying for food. You should feed her."
"You don't give a damn about the cat. You only want to steal her food."
"That's not true."
"Mr. Svelte."
"It's glandular."
"Smell my butt."
"Dad, the cat."
"Shut up."
"Do you think he's dead?"
"Dad. Do you think he's dead? If he died, who would feed us?"
"What? What the hell? Shut up."
"I'm just saying."
"Smell my butt."
"You shut up, too. Quit saying that."
"No, look...he's still breathing."
"Maybe we should kill him."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kick A Writer Day

I read the recent story about "Kick A Jew Day" with outrage, but as came to the part of the news story that suggested the creators of "South Park" might somehow be responsible, I took pause. In "South Park", according to the story, the behavior of the Naples kids was somehow influenced by other kids who have engaged in something called "Kick A Ginger Day", a Ginger being someone with red hair.

The school official in the news story below is correct when he states that perhaps blaming "South Park" lets the students off the hook for the responsibility of choosing an inappropriate behavior, but as a writer and teacher, I have no problem calling out Stone and Parker, "South Park"'s creators.

To be honest, I stopped watching "South Park" some time ago. I felt the show had become mean-spirited and that it at times took on racist and sexist overtones. I came to the opinion that Stone and Parker expressed a bigotry, unconsciously or otherwise and excused it by saying: "It's satire, we're expressing racism to show how absurd racism is."

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work out that way. I remember sitting with my students and discussing their perceptions of Jews as well as their perceptions of Jews on "Family Guy" and "South Park". Some got it. Many didn't. They allowed the lampooning of bigotry to reinforce their prejudice. I wanted to write a letter to Seth McFarlane, "Family Guy"'s creator, and ask him where he stands in this discussion. Perhaps I still will. Or perhaps he answered it when it was revealed that Lois Griffin, the main character's wife, was in fact Jewish and that her mother hid her background due to Lois' father's bigotry.

"I put the work out there," an artist might exclaim. "I'm not responsible for how it's interpreted or who watches it. Parents should exert some influence." This falls in line with "South Park"'s creators' previously expressed libertarian philosophy.

The controversy of artist responsibility isn't new. One can look back at "Birth of Nation", a blot on the history of the film industry and see the role of the artist in influencing social perceptions. In literature, one can look back further, although literature before the turn of the last century wasn't on the coffee tables and in the living rooms of the working class as well as the elite. One wonders what Hitler would have been able to do had he had access to the medium of television or the internet.

Where do we draw the line though? In the seventies was Alice Cooper responsible if teens imitated his stage show and as a result accidentally hanged themselves? Is Ozzy Osborne responsible for other teens from that same era taking his song "Suicide Solution" to heart? What about the responsibility of rapper, former drug dealer, 50 cent? Would we say that his work is responsible? Is his song "Gun Runner", the story of a gun deal gone wrong, told from the evil and successful gun dealer's perspective, social commentary which criticizes violence? Or does it glorify it?

This is a complicated issue. As writers, I think at some point, we all have to ask where responsibility falls. Stone and Parker jumped the shark some time ago and took credibility with them. Their show is merely self-indulged hate mongering masquerading as social commentary these days. "Family Guy"? It gets close, sometimes flirting dangerously close to the flame.

Or maybe it depends on what side of the fence you're on.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Modern Warfare Two Much?

As a gamer I have never shied away from violent video games. Doom, the ground-breaking "first person shooter" of the early nineties had me running around on a Mars science station, blasting the hell out of demons escaped from a portal to Hell.

More recently, I spent hours in a compelling WWII drama (Brothers-in-Arms) that was so rich in storytelling and character development that it could have been turned into a heartbreaking film about loyalty and retaining one's humanity in the midst of the insanity that is war. I know some will raise their eyebrows, but the game was that good.

Any yet there have always been other games that have made me pause and guiltily admit to playing them. The Grand Theft Auto series is in that category. I played part of one and decided I didn't like shooting police, beating prostitutes, and glorifying street thugs. I despise gangbangers. The idea of the noble criminal, the Mafioso with a heart of gold,has always been insulting to me. It disturbed me to see how gangbangers across the country elevated Al Pacino's pyschopathic character from "Scarface", heroworshiping him. If you want to be truly sickened, rent the anniversary version DVD sometime and listen to the gang associated rappers in the "extras" explain why the character touched them in a special way.

And now? Now I've just played through a scenario in a game which is guaranteed to be under Christmas trees across the country this year. A game that parents will benevolently bestow upon their children: Modern Warfare II. Don't get me wrong, I love the game and will play it to death, but I have to ask the creators why they decided to include this scene in the game. Essentially, as a deep undercover operative you follow a handful of Russian terrorists into a crowded airport and watch as they gun down over a hundred people. If you want, you can probably join them in the fun --- I was too appalled to fire at the innocents. On the other hand, I did try and shoot the terrorists and was in turn shot by them.  If you want to see this scene, you can click on the embedded video. You'll notice the person playing this segment enthusiastically joins in the killing of civilians.

Some people will argue that to drive home the horror of terrorism that a person should be unflinchingly exposed to its brutality. Perhaps that would hold on a news show, but in a video game?

I'm not going to follow the argument that video games desensitize people and therefore contribute to violence in the community, but I think this sort of use of violent imagery should give us pause. Some would argue that the it's part of real life and therefore the game is really a reflection of that. Really? Really? So should we then have a game where a person plays a child abuser? Or a serial killer who goes into a school in Colorado and blows away a dozen children?

Another person will point out that buying a game is a voluntary process and that parents don't have to buy this for their kids. The idiocy of that statement is that people won't know about the violence of this game and even if they know, they will be beaten down by a teenager who wants to play what every other kid is playing on the internet.

I'm not suggesting that children will watch this and run out zombie-like to gun down a group of innocents. I'm just expressing some thoughts on the matter and wondering about whether or not a line may have been crossed, or if indeed, whether or not a line can be crossed any more.

My next post: "Writerly Responsibility" (it sort of a companion piece to this one)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baby Steps, the path to rhetoric

I believe in personal growth. We all change. We aren't static. Maybe some refuse to accept the presence of change because the gradualness of the process can make perception of it difficult.

Personally, one thing I'm working on, and often failing at, is not attacking people for their beliefs. I am an opinionated man and am not shy about expressing myself. So conflict often ensues when I run into someone else who is also opinionated and outspoken.

One thing that sparked this reflection is a book on rhetoric. The authors argued that too often we assume a person's opinions are intrinsically tied to a person's personality. Therefore, challenging that person is likely to be threatening to that person and will block true discourse. Another author tried to address the barriers to communication by stating: "Superior people hold superior beliefs, thus non-believers are unworthy of equal treatment."

Communication, of course, is about listening and understanding a point of view. It is dispassionately picking apart an point of view and looking for flaws and strengths of an argument. It is not shouting at one another across a table on a TV talk show or across a negotiating table.

I've tried to remain apolitical on this blog, at least over the last couple years. However, I will make this political statement: open and intelligent discourse is a crucial element of democracy. Holding fast to a belief without intellectual curiosity is the path to stratification and solidification of feelings which might threaten the sense of unity that is conducive to domestic tranquility.

So here's to the much slandered concept of true rhetoric. Here's to true communication where listening is an active process and not something that occurs merely while we're catching breaths. And for those of my friends who hear me blast someone and shred an ego or two, remember I'm a work in progress.

Baby steps.

Monday, November 09, 2009


It was an independent film made for a reputed $10,000 and it has so far raked in around 90 million dollars. Of course, it helps when you are receiving a boost from Steven Spielberg and the Dreamworks group. I saw the film, often compared to "The Blair Witch Project", mostly because both are horror films told in a crude cinema verite' style and both were commercially successful after being made for a pittance. Both films also were successful thanks to viral advertising as well as a lively adolescent audience who latched on to the storyline and let their imaginations provide what the filmmakers were unable to.

The British newspaper The Times, in an article by Kevin Maher, describes the initial screening of the film in Santa Monica, where teens were behaving in an hysteric manner. According to the article the audience screamed, some paced the aisles and others cried uncontrollably in terror. At the preview screening, according to the Chicago Tribune, several audience members left before the film was over. When the studio people interviewed them, they were told by those exiting that they weren't leaving because they were bored, but rather because they were scared.

When I saw the film this weekend, there were only a handful of people present, mostly teens. And listening to their comments afterward, they found the film horrifying. I stopped one of them and asked: "Why?"

"Because it's so real," she said. Her friends, two boys and another girl, nodded agreement. "It's like something that could happen. It scared me."

An adult who had watched the film shook his head as he left and said to his wife: "That was stupid. How boring."

Wow. I love when there is disagreement in response, but talk about opposite ends of a spectrum!

I found the film worthwhile. It wasn't especially horrifying, although there were creepy moments that had me on the edge of the seat. The story is about a couple who live in a suburban home and are experiencing supernatural events which, it turns out, are the result of a demon that has haunted the female protagonist since childhood. The skeptical boyfriend, who videotapes everything, tends to antagonize the entity until the nightly visits take a more horrifying turn.

What gives me hope is that the teens here were responding to storytelling and not to gore. They were responding to the elements of horror that should be part of every horror writer's bag of tricks: foreshadowing, the use of little things to imply the greater horror at play, the use of darkness as opposed to gore for the sake of gore.

Great film? No. Good film? No. Interesting film? Yes, if one pauses to consider what is at work sociologically and psychologically between the film maker and the audience.

Finally, let me suggest other horror films where no or little blood is shed and where the same elements are at work to scare an audience, and to leave a sense of disturbance long after the closing credits.

The Haunting--directed by Wise and based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, this original black and white version remains the most horrifying. Its use of shadow and camera angle are memorable and the acting is believable with real characters.

The Innocents-- The Turn of the Screw has been done many times, but the black and white version with Deborah Kerr remains the most effective. I still see the ghost on the island in the middle of the lake, a gray blob among the shadows, chilling because she isn't clearly visible and we're not sure what we are looking at.

The Exorcist-- While the shock value is there, the story itself remains effective. The idea of the corruption of innocence and the challenge to fate of the priest is psychologically compelling. And I'll add a vote here for The Exorcist III with George C. Scott.

Night of the Living Dead--- This started the zombie thing, but what works is the grainy film and the claustrophobia as the characters try to stave off the inevitable. George Romero has never been able to reproduce the effectiveness of the low budget production. Again, there is gore, but the gore is secondary or even tertiary to what is really grabbing the audience and scaring the heck out of it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm Done Ravening

I have been without home internet for the last week. Thank you ATT. So apologies to all who expected almost daily postings. Still, I think we've had some good ones this October, don't you?

I have watched both Misery and Romancing The Stone, films about writers. In each of these the author in question finishes a novel with a little ritual. They tap-tap-tap the final page, finish with "The End" and dance off, drinking a glass of champagne or smoking an expensive cigar. It's astonishing to me these people don't reread their work, edit, or proofread. Instead they just box up the manuscript and send it off to the eagerly awaiting editor. I guess wealth and fame has its privileges.

Well, last night I finished The Ravening and this afternoon, I sent it off to the editor for perusal. No ritual. Maybe I'm missing something. Still, it's good to be done. It's great to be done. And now? Am I on my way to Disneyland? Nope, now I'm outlining the sequel and working on a few short stories that have been begging attention.

So, here's to The Ravening, a tale of zombies and survival. I hope it's entertaining and I am sure I will be talking more about this in the coming months.

Would someone call me a "dirty bird"?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe

It would be a crime to let this season pass without paying homage to this incredibly influential and tragic figure. Edgar Allen Poe, one of the creators of the modern detective story and indeed one of the architects of the modern short story, is a striking individual whose importance shouldn't be allowed to be understated.

For those who haven't visited Poe in some time or who may be somewhat new to him, here is a tremendous site. The Poe Museum is well organized, with interesting information about the author as well as opportunities for young people to participate in short story and poetry competitions. Teachers can find links to suggested readings and even lesson plans. The curious may want to purchase Poe themed t-shirts, coffee mugs, or other items or collectibles.
As for the works of the master himself, since Poe is out of copyright, his writings are available throughout the web. However you may want to visit the excellent

Let me take a moment though to discuss two things about Poe's work that has most affected me. First, for those who have heard me talk about writing, Poe views on the importance on economy should be printed out and mounted over every author's computer screen. Poe once wrote that every paragraph, every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark should further either theme, setting, plot, or character. I have always used this as a compass.

The other thing about Poe that has moved me is his ability to create an image through an amazing word choice. Look, for instance, at this opening to the Fall of the House of Usher.

"During the whole of dull, dark, soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy house of Usher."

This one sentence is so rich in technique and meaning, and it brilliantly sets up this story of the decadence of Southern aristocracy and premature burial. Look at the alliteration of the opening breath and then follow, if you will, the descent upon which the reader is taken through the remainder of the sentence. It's like watching a leaf fall, gliding first to the left and then to the right, but ever and inevitably descending.

This sentence is also rich in drama without being melodramatic. Although one can imagine the pounding of an organ with the proclamation about the House of Usher

I could go on and on about this and about other Poe delicacies, but instead let me urge you to surf, discover and rediscover on your own. I would also recommend that you read this marvelous article from The New Yorker. It's a bit long, but well-written and edged with a fine sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dressing Up

There are certain costumes we just don't want to see around Halloween.
First and foremost, anything racist or misogynist. How many times have I seen people attend a party and look at the event as an excuse to exercise bad taste? It's one thing when some idiot attends a private party, but sometimes they actually set example for children. This has gotten worse in the last few years as adult costumes have become more and more inappropriate. Now, I'm not one to shy away from bad taste, but I do tend to hold up my nose at boorishly bad or unimaginative. I was going to post a photo of a toddler wearing a costume with a bloody alien erupting from its chest, but even I couldn't go there.
So instead, here are three tasteless masks and costumes that I CAN show...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Back From The Dead

I have been incredibly sick for the last week. Maybe H1N1? I think. I'm just starting to feel human now and thought I would return to update folks about last weeks' Conclave.

First, congratulations to Jason Lindsey, who was there with his lovely wife, for being the winner of my LAST MAN STANDING TRIVIA CONTEST. As a winner, he is now a character in my new zombie novel, THE RAVENING, and will be gruesomely killed in print. Second Place winner was Daniel Hogan, who will be referenced as the head of the CDC. Immortality is immortality.

Speaking of zombie novels, William Jones and I both read excerpts from our work at the convention. Listening to William's reading, I have to say that I'm looking forward to the release of Pallid Light. The section William read was shocking and edged with humor. Outstanding.

Rick Moore presented a fascinating panel on non-fiction writing. He is quite knowledgeable in this area. Unfortunately, he bailed on doing a ghost hunting panel, but there's always next year, when the name of ConClave will be formally changed to Rick's Show.

We also were able to get a smattering of gaming in. Appropriately enough, a zombie game. If you play with the Joneses, you can usually count on two things. When his opponent stumbles and all seems lost, William Jones will gleefully rub his hands together and intone: "Excellent". Deborah has a bit more mercy. She stops all game play, attends to you with intense scrutiny and inquires: "I just need to make sure...are you ready to surrender? You can give up now, if you'd like." And she does this BEFORE things actually happen. Me? I never indulge in any mind hooligans. No, I just humbly press on in good sportsmanship and applaud my opponent's victories and console him on his losses.

Before was great to see Chuck Zaglanis. The big hearted lug did a reading from his story in High Seas Cthulhu. Kevin was there to provide a charming smile and surprisingly buy everyone lunch. Thanks Kevin. Love ya. Rick bought lunch one day as well. So two love yas are in order. Also it was great to meet Merrie Haskell and Jon David

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The One Thousand and Fifty Sixth Dragon of Creativity...Or Why I Love Zombies

I'm lying..I'm not posting about dragons. Not now...probably not ever. I may post about creativity at some future point, but hell...wouldn't you rather talk zombies? Of course you would.

I'll assume people visiting here have already seen Zombieland. If you haven't, and if you consider yourself any fan of horror, then may I suggest you do so..immediately. Zombieland is a rollercoaster that at once lampoons this subgenre and at the same time celebrates it. Don't think about Shaun of the Dead. This is an entirely and different and equally enjoyable animal.

That being stated, why do we enjoy the undead reanimating and chomping the hell out of us? Where's the attraction? Vampires are charming. Werewolves are powerful and savage. And Zombies? Well...they sort of ooze stuff all over the place and leave bits and pieces of themselves in their wake.

Perhaps we might find the solution to this question in the success of George Romero's classic, "Night of the Living Dead". Let's think...what was going on in the late sixties? Hmmm....the Vietnam War, riots in our urban areas, and a shifting from fifties culture that left many people feeling left behind. As a result, the apocalypse became an attractive theme for some writers and film makers. From this perspective, the zombie represents the world gone wrong, the upheaval of the natural order of things. In the zombie apocalypse, all the institutions of authority that we have trusted since childhood are powerless to help us.

So how is it that with such a bleak canvas to paint a story upon that zombie films seem to be such a strong niche? Well, if we first push aside the gore, we are left with the triumph of the individual. What? Think about it. Cut off from all help and support, the survivor of the zombie apocalypse must rely on his wits and personal attributes. Let me argue that the zombie apocalypse is actually one of the most hopeful of all horror subgenres.

I know..I know...almost every zombie film ends with the heroes dying. However, I would argue that there is still triumph, that although the flesh may be consumed, the hero fights to the end against overwhelming odds.

Below find a clip from the rather delightful LOST ZOMBIES, a delightful online community to help people deal with the plague that has spread through the country.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scaring the Kids

Halloween began as a religious holiday. I won't discuss the whole Samhain thing here, let's just say it came from an agricultural based philosophy and signified beliefs dealing with the change of seasons and the concepts of life and death. But somehow this event, celebrated as it is in America, metamorphised into something else...into a celebration that encouraged hedonism, recapturing childhood fantasy, and and a celebration of one's fears. There's a good deal of material there and I could several pages just talking about dealing with inhibition from a sociology perspective. However, let's focus on the last, the celebration of fear.

"I want to be scared," someone will say, entering a movie or a "haunted" house. Of course. We can and should translate this into "I want to experience an intense emotion safely so I can deal with it. I want to be vicariously afraid."

Why? Well, first I assume that there is a rush in fear. Some people are adrenelin junkies. To put it clinically, as the system is shocked and a burst of adrenlin is released, there is also a subsequent burst of endorphin. A sensation of euphoria ensues. Charles could probably do a better job describing this.

Next, there is a psychological satisfaction in being presented with a fear response and overcoming it....safely. For instance, we love roller coasters, it allows us to cope with the speed and the illusion of danger. However, put that same person in a car, run it over a hundred miles an hour down an expressway in the middle of a rainy night, and although some of the same sensations might be produced, the danger is real and the event---not as much fun. We might enjoy screaming at Michael Meyers in Halloween. However, open the door at midnight and find a tall, hulking masked figure standing there, a machete danging from one hand....and suddenly...not so much fun. The point of horror is that it allows us to experience this fear from a distance, to handle it safely.

Another reason to celebrate the fear in Halloween? Because it's a rite of passage. Overcoming certain fears is part of growing up. As we've made different icons of horror safe for the little ones (the cardboard witch with the goofy smile, the gentle and socially awkward Frankenstein monster), we are helping them deal with the discomfort they feel at the unfamiliar or the misunderstood. Some fears are productive and necessary to survival. Halloween is a great time for us to help kids understand that there are rational and irrational fears and that there are ways to overcome some of the irrational ones. Of course, I'm not sure why adults want to do this..there is something delicious about seeing kids run screaming from a paper ghost.

Friday, October 02, 2009


Even a man who is young at heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms....
And the autumn moon is bright.

---Universal Pictures' "The Wolfman"

There is something seductive about power, and the werewolf, the ultimate representation of savagry, is one of literature's most primitive displays of animal rage and power in its darkest aspect. This ancient horror, recounted by the likes of Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny the Elder, has probably been part of our lore long before there was written history. The terror generated by the beast taps into the same unease we feel when we consider the likes of Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dalmer... we are unable to fathom that sort of savagery and we know that without warning we can change from observer to prey. Of course, some would argue that the werewolf acts with the pure motives of an animal, exhilirated by the hunt. I'd argue that the werewolf as it's been depicted isn't a pure animal but a manifestation of our darkest natures, hunting not for food but for the thrill of inciting terror and for the pleasure of the kill.

From a literary standpoint, there are few stories or novels where the werewolf has managed to shine. You won't find a werewolf equivalent to Dracula, for instance. Larry Talbot, (the character portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. in Universal's "The Wolfman"), is hardly a memorable figure, there are few who would be able to remember his name. Even Stephen King's werewolf novel is hardly considered a horror classic.

The werewolf has fared better in film. Jon Landis has given us a black comedy that brilliant delivers a chill or two--"An American Werewolf In London" is brilliant. If you haven't seen it, you would do yourself a favor putting it on your list for Halloween dvds. A more recent entry into the lycanthrope's lair is the independent horror film "Dog Soldiers". The tag line for this 2002 film says it all: "Six Soldiers. Full moon. No Chance." It's a suspenseful entry that builds to a nail-biting crescendo. Again, perfect for Halloween.

What about the current trend of vampire/werewolf films you ask? What about "Rise of the Lycans". It's good fantasy---mindless adventure with great special effects. What about the sequel to Twilight that's due out? Again, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance---but not horror. Perhaps the werewolf is becoming as defanged as the vampire has been by contemporary authors and film-makers, but there's still hope. Early next year, director Joe Johnson will helm a re-telling of "The Wolfman", starring Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot and Anthony Hopkins as his father. And from the trailer, it looks like brutality of the beast is still simmering, ready to explode.

And for those of you who like your lycanthropy from a Judaic perspective----here's Werewolf Bar-Mitzvah......

Stay tuned for the next post: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HALLOWEEN

Thursday, October 01, 2009


As promised, we're striving for daily posts through October, all with a Halloween motif. Today, I think it is time we explored the critters that we associate with dread. I've noticed, for instance, that there are those folk who shudder at the image of an arachnid (spider) creeping along a web. Some people shrink back at the presence of a snake. Others will run for cover when a bat makes an appearance.

It's interesting how certain animals trigger a response and it makes me wonder if that is a learned behavior or some sort of remnant of an instinctual survival mechanism. One can understand how fears of spiders and snakes may have evolved, but certainly to see those fears carried out in a world of chrome and glass is mystifying. And of course, the things that most people should be terrified of ...squirrels...tend to induce most people to smile stupidly.

As a writer, animals provide wonder triggers and metaphors. Stephen King certainly realized that when he wrote IT! Of course, King also used the most unlikely animal for an antagonist---a St. Bernard (Cujo). Stoker used rats and bats for their greatest effect in Dracula, and let's not forget the image of Renfield collecting houseflies for a feast. Poe and Lovecraft both used cats to inspire a sense of the otherworldly. Film culture has taken the exotic and common animal to create dread. Hitchcock's birds, Spielberg's sharks come to mind. Donner used two mastiffs as guardian's of Satan's kid in The Omen.

Perhaps the use of animals in popular culture and literature to spark fear isn't so much a lingering memory as they are a metaphor for the untamed side of human nature, for the beast that lingers within all of us.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Never Drink...Wine

So...what does a horror and dark fantasy writer do on a blog during the month of October? Hmmm... This month Halloween starts NOW and runs all month long. I'm not promising a daily posting, but I'll do my best. So feel free to visit daily for your Halloween fix. And to start off we'll go....well, where else but Transylvania?

Dracula, that dark metaphor for repressed sexuality, is alive (or undead) and well, staying to the shadowy side of cyberspace. Serious fans of Stoker's count might want to take a day trip to Dracula's Homepage, where you are welcome to enter freely and of your own will. This site, kept by Elizabeth Miller, is a great starting point for the curious or for the serious fan of gothic literature. Whether you want to read about Vlad, the real-life count who supposedly inspired Stoker, or peruse the entire novel, Miller's portal is well and lovingly organized. Dr. Miller, according to her bio, has participated in several documentaries on Dracula and has been interviewed by BBC, ABC ("20/20"), U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, and numerous other media outlets. She has published several articles and books on Dracula, including A Dracula Handbook and Bram Stoker's Dracula: A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon.

What is astonishing is why the vampire, in an age where sexual exploration isn't quite as repressed, has managed to dominate fantasy literature. In the Victorian era, the vampire was, according to a fascinating little article by Stephen Dixon in the Irish Times, a parable for syphilis. Dixon goes on to credit concern over the AIDS virus for the re-emergence of the vampire through the 1980-90's. But what about the pervasive presence of the vampire in our current popular culture? Should we again look toward disease for an answer? Or is it possible that in an age where intimacy seems a difficult state to achieve and where people verbalize feeling a loss of control over their destiny that the vampire is a metaphor for both the elusive relationship and the ability to claim power by taking the darkness and turning it back on the oppressor? I don't suppose there is any one answer, and any discussion regarding the current popularity of the vampire will bring about numerous debates. That's why they created beer, after all, to make such discussion easier to handle.

By the way, for those folk who might be attending my Last Man Standing Trivia Contest at the upcoming Conclave, I promise you a few Dracula questions. Here's one question to mull over, although it probably won't be asked at the convention: "Name ten actors who have played the famous vampire in a theatrically released motion picture....if you consider yourself a real horror fan, try and do this without googling the answer.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Conclave 34

Conclave has been around since 1976. Among its past guests of honor, one can find such luminaries in the realm of science fiction and fantasy as James Gunn, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova, Robert Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, David Brin, Algis Burgiss, Gene Wolfe, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Gordon R. Dickson, and Larry Niven. If you don't know these names, then you don't know science fiction and fantasy.

This year, I'll be at Conclave 34, in Romulus, Michigan. No, I'm no guest of honor, but rather a humble contributor to a few panels. However, to be in any way associated with the above personages fills me with excitement. But don't worry, those who come by will find the usual convention fare and a chance to escape for a weekend and join fellow gamers, artisans, writers, and fans of genre. You might even have an opportunity to join in the launch of something tentatively called The Midwest Genre Association. Maybe.

So hopefully, I'll have a chance to see some of you. It will be good to get away from it all for a few hours and share in science fiction and fantasy history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

True Blood....Maybe Next Time

Allow me to step back from all things intellectual for a moment (whew) and instead discuss the second season of TRUE BLOOD, which ended a week ago. Or if you insist on a more intellectual discussion, visit my educational blog...Sternberg's Mind Matter

For those who aren't in the know, TRUE BLOOD is based on the works of Charlaine Harris, specifically books centered around the exploits of female heroine Sookie , a waitress who has the ability to read minds. In the world created by Harris, vampires have stepped out of the closet and are now accepted, somewhat, as part of society. It's dark urban fantasy.

Now, while I haven't read any of Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books, I have read some of her other efforts, and have found them to be extremely entertaining. So when I criticize TRUE BLOOD, as I am about to do now, let me say it's in no way a criticism of Harris.

That being said, the first season of this HBO special was wonderful, and I recommend it to all. You can rent it or buy it. The second season, however, was a muddle. While it started out well, focusing on the kidnapping of a vampire by a religious extremist group, it ended in what can only be described as farce, with the town of Bontempe, Sookie's home, falling under the spell of a supernatural immortal who is intent on sacrificing the local shapeshifter to the god Dionysius. Wait? What???? See what I mean? We started off with this great story about religious extremists and about the social strata of the vampire community and end up with an absurd plotline.
I'm not giving up yet on the series. I'll be there next year and hopefully, it will recapture the tension and darkness of the first year, or even of the first part of the second year. We'll see. Sophomore years are like that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Losing It

Generation X, Meet Generation ADHD

fossilsWe have abrogated responsibility of our children to electronic media, allowing them to suckle for hours at the glass teat, to endlessly mash game controllers, and to wander through the internet with little to no impulse control. We then assuage our collective guilt by claiming this undisciplined intellectual response to be the new literacy. If we can claim that falling reading scores merely indicate a change in HOW children read, we might feel better about ourselves as a society. By all means, let’s test children on their ability to think like a pinball, to pick out the most obvious points in a text, and to reduce communication to its most basic elements. Forget about critical thinking skills developed by deep reading. Let’s abandon a self-disciplined approach to intellectual study. Instead, we can reduce ourselves to our most primary strands of thought and fulfill Taylor’s concept of sacrificing the individual for the system ( warning—at the time Taylor wrote, the system represented sweat shops , child labor, and unbridled exploitation of labor).

In an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr makes makes an interesting case about the affects of prolonged exposure to the internet in his essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“. Carr states: ” When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.” Carr believes, and I agree with him, that ” our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged” with the sort of scanning that most people consider online reading.

At a convention panel in Michigan, Tamora Pierce, a writer of young adult fantasy, during a discussion of declining literacy, embraced the idea that children weren’t reading less, but rather they were reading more online and reading differently. She seemed to feel this move from a traditional reading style was a good thing and that perhaps it was a liberating reaction from the pedagogy where, in her words, children were only being taught to read the works of “old white men.”

If the internet is truly affecting us at a neurological level and if Generation ADHD is losing the ability to remain focused on longer works of literature and to operate at deep levels of thinking, then we need to address this as a society head on and not find ways to accept decline by redefining it to make it palatable.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Freedom To Learn

The following is the most recent posting from Sternberg's Mind Matters

M.I.T. has put its curriculum online. This means that anyone can access all manner of lectures and academic content. Although they can’t get a degree by doing this, for the person interested in self-enrichment or prepping for possible coursework, the opportunity is tremendous.This idea, the spreading of opencourseware, some claim is the future trend of education. Right now numerous universities and high schools have their material online and the cry is for more material to be made available for all. How very egalitarian. Students from districts outside the United States, or adult learners, suddenly have at their fingertips a wealth of information. This is a globalists' dream. Somewhere, Thomas L. Friedman is celebrating.

However, one wonders about the the possible consequences or complications of this trend. Not that I am against the idea, but I suppose there will be a point where the "free" work starts competing or butting heads with public and private universities. Especially if an organization such as P2PU, a peer to peer university were to receive some form of accreditation. While there would always be those wishing the prestige of graduating from an actual university with a physical campus, there are those who would shrug their shoulders and say, "A degree is a degree."
Consider Phoenix University, one of the first distance learnign programs in the U.S.. Initially, those graduating with a Phoenix degree were met with skepticism. At the beginning distance learning was a queer creature and few took it seriously. Now a degree from Phoenix University is met with little if any resistance.

So why not P2PU? Surely there are enough students for all, and one can't imagine that students availing themselves of programs such as P2PU would deprive places like Harvard, Florida State, or the UCLA of a paying student base. And yet, there are always consequences for each social trend or technological development. In the coming years I suspect we'll see court challenges regarding copyright infringement from one side and from the other side, challenges to be eligible for monies that would usually be reserved for phyical institutions and not necessarily those existing in a cyberworld.

I'm not passing judgement. I'm just thinking out loud.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kill Everybody

I'm not one to be controversial. I'll give some of you a moment to quiet down. However, I want to talk about something near and dear to my heart--the apocalypse. I recently had a discussion with another writer. I believe we were gnawing on the concept of zombie novels and apocalyptic fiction. I said: "You know, I have this thing about not killing everyone off. I mean, if we're going to create a character, endow him or her with all these marvelous qualities, and then torture them for the length of a novel. After dragging the character and the reader through all that, don't you think the hero has a right to live?"

The other writer chuckled in a terrifying manner. "Oh no. Kill 'em all."

Well, it is the apocalypse after all. But what does it say when we kill off everyone. If we create a hopeless environment, populated with hopeless people, then where is the tension? And where is the catharsis? How many times can you have Charleton Heston kneeling in the sand and screaming in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? How many times can you rescue a heroine only to have her claimed in the last second of the film by an unkillable Freddie Kruger? How many times can you paint yourself into a corner, such as Stephen King does in "The Stand" and resolve it with a literal "deus ex machina"? Let's face it, the ending of "The Stand" remains one of the most disappointing and ludicrous resolutions in the history of modern literature.

As a writer of Lovecraftian fiction, I know that no one is going to be able to take down Cthulhu or Azatoth. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to give my character some victory, or my reader some catharsis.

Call me a pushover, but I want my audience to cheer and when they leave the theater or close the book, I want a satisfied smile on their faces.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

New Blog?

I ain't going anywhere. However, I did want to create a second blog for Stewart the Educator. My second blog will deal exclusively with educational matters whether it's school policy, NCLB, content area issues, or politics related to the profession. For a short time I will copy those posts here as well, at least until I can develop a network of educators who will join me. So, from now on "House of Sternberg" remains a writing and all-things-absurd blog, and Sternberg's Mind Matter will be a blog for all things about the field of education.

Below...from Sternberg's Mind Matter. If you're an educator and you want to respond to this post, I welcome you to do so on the other blog. Of course, you're also free to comment here as well.

The Presidential Address

I am fascinated by the response people are having to the president’s announcement that he will make available a ‘pep’ talk on education this coming Tuesday. The concern by some individuals that this is an attempt to further a partisan agenda by attempting to indoctrinate students is a glimmer of a much larger issue —the politicization of education in America, from the left and from the right.

It’s inevitable, I suppose. Teachers have tremendous influence on students, but according to a report done not so long ago, teachers are usually third or fourth in the ranking of influence on students.

The primary influence is, of course, the family. Next, peers (although many studies have shown that as students approach adolescence that the family influence is overshadowed by peer influence). Behind family and peers? Teachers and the clergy come in a close third and fourth, but lag well behind the first and second.

So, given the role of the teacher, it’s not surprising we often become the straw man.

Still, let’s go back to the original issue—the presidential address that has several on the right crying foul. Maybe these individuals should stop and think: who is going to have more influence on their children–the wordy man on TV, whom they will listen to for less than an hour as they fidget in their seats, or the teacher who has them day after day after day?

And even then, the teacher will come in a weak third or fourth. Parents should have little concern for any furtherance of any agenda. It’s been shown that children tend to take on the politics of their parents.

Now, if Obama ever develops a really cool video game, then the right might have cause for concern.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Literary Influence-Another Consideration

I continue to give thought to the concept of literary influences. If I were studying an author and trying to understand what elements came together to help form his literary identity, I suspect it would be a life's work, with many undefined areas and several unsatisfactory answers. Also, ultimately, I suspect it doesn't really matter. Consider how little is known about Shakespeare, for instance, yet the author continues to be a presence in literature.

I think when an author claims someone as being a literary influence, one needs to take that with a grain of salt. Perhaps it's more of a tribute to that author than a true declaration. I believe that an author is the sum of many parts. Family influences, teachers, friends, and life changing experiences probably weigh more heavily on a writer's process of creativity than having read another author's creations.

Here is another suggestion. Perhaps the idea of a literary influence, besides being a form of tribute, is a marketing ruse. If I'm a publisher and I'm doing a second or third run of a Carver title, why not add "Another anthology from one of the most influential short story writers of the last two decades."? Why not?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Literary Influences

Recently, I've been discussing Raymond Carver with a few other writers. Some people insist that his work was influential. My contention has been.....not so much. However, this dialog has made me think of something that is worthy of discussion: what is literary influence and how is it qualified or quantified?

In a response to Joe's blog posting on Carver, I have to ask is someone like Carver or Wolfe, or Bellow or Malamud (all important writers) more significant in their influences on the world of literature and that world's affect on popular culture and the American identity than someone like Anne Rice. Whoa. Relax and hear me out. I'm not going to defend Anne Rice. I enjoyed "Interview with the Vampire" and her sequels, but I never considered these books to be bold and artful works. However, Anne Rice's work, much to her reborn Christian chagrin, has given birth to such writers as Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Stephenie Meyers. The tsunami of vampire novels and urban fantasy that has swept over us, producing a storm in the marketplace has definitely affected younger readers and many older ones as well. We can scoff at the literary quality of some of this writing, but they nonetheless have influence. Especially those works which find their way into theaters and onto our television screens. By insinuating themselves into our national psyche, they open doors for many other writers and also for ideas that might have been less palatable outside of genre.

Lovecraft had tremendous influence as well. I would argue more than Mr. Carver. Lovecraft's bleak view of the cosmos and many of his literary concepts would find their way through much of our culture, in book and film, without us being aware that he was the source of its influence. Kids reading Lovecraft in the fifties and sixties grew up and remembered his work as they churned out their own material. Bradbury and Bloch, both who corresponded with Lovecraft, were quick to give him the kudos he deserved. Stephen King has freely admitted the affect that Lovecraft has had on him. And while most people haven't read Lovecraft (he isn't for everyone, much of his work is dated and plods along), most people have encountered him in some form, without realizing it. I remember mentioning the name Arkham (a fictional town created by Lovecraft) and having someone chime in: "You mean the insane asylum in Batman"?

I will be exploring this in more detail at some other time, the idea of what constitutes literary influence, what we mean by the phrase. It seems to be thrown around rather liberally. I think it would be the subject of several fascinating essays.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Cthulhu Fraternity

Someone heard me talk about Cthulhu recently and gave me an odd expression. "What is that?"

"Cthulhu? He's the God who lies dreaming at the bottom of the ocean, waiting for the stars to be right so he can rise and welcome the return of the older gods."

"Yeah." I recognized the response and the facial expression. My father had that expression when he leaned against the doorframe gazing about my room the year I moved out on my own. He nodded at the posters and darkness, letting his gaze fix on a skull I had on my desk, a half-melted candle on its crown, held there by wax drippings.

"When are you going to grow up?" he would ask.

"November 23rd at 3:45 pm, EST."

My father glanced at the skull and left, mumbling something over his shoulder in Yiddish.

I'm not going to give you an in depth defense of my love for horror, but I will relate something that might help explain the appeal. At least of the Lovecraftian world. Lovecraft, for those who might not know, was the author of the horror stories that have come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft never gave us a consistent and definitive view of this mythos, but perhaps his allusions to the chaos that is the reality of the universe are more chilling for their vagueness.

When I was much younger I remember reading a veiled reference about what happened off Devil Reef and feeling a thrill because having read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", I knew what happened there, dammit!

"...Cap'n Obed an' twenty odd other folks used to row aout to Devil Reef in the dead o' night an' chant things so laoud ye cud hear 'em all over taown when the wind was right? Tell me that, hey? An' tell me why Obed was allus droppin' heavy things daown into the deep water t'other side o' the reef whar the bottom shoots daown like a cliff lower'n ye kin saound? An' why'd the new church parsons--fellers as used to be sailors--wear them queer robes an' cover their-selves with them gold-like things Obed brung? Hey?".

I knew what happened that brought in the feds with their dynamite to Innsmouth, dammit. Reading these connecting threads made me feel as though I knew something others didn't, that maybe I might be part of an exclusive club for reader and writer alike. Only it isn't the sort of club one talks about out loud and the members aren't necessarily the sort of folk you want to see under a full moon.

Don't laugh. That sense of belonging is important to literature. Readers of the Harry Potter series have that sense of unity. Lovers of Sherlock Holmes have societies around the globe. Let's not get into the insanity that Star Wars and Star Trek have bred.

So why not the mythos? Why not a sense of fraternity among those who thrill at stories in this narrow vein of horror? In a time where the threat of global warming and nuclear war are real threats, the chaos of the Lovecraftian universe makes dark sense and serves to remind us that we are not as important as we think we are and the danger we present to ourselves, while significant to the species at large, is minute next to the indifferent chaos that waits in the eternal blackness where the gods sing in madness and the pipers play to soothe the vortex that is the blind idiot deity. Kinda catchy, don't you think?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hey, Raymond!

I made the error of asking: "Who is Raymond Carver?"

They rolled their eyes and fell into spasms of literary shock. What? You haven't read Carver? We thought you were well-read, we thought you were a serious writer. Phillistine!! This was the second sin I had committed within an hour. I had turned to the quiet and desperate young man sitting next to me and quietly commented about a book he had in his lap: "Cormac Mccarthy? I'm really not impressed by him. He's one of those Oprah hypes, isn't he? I mean, 'The Road' is sort of a wannabe genre piece." The young gentleman in question, who has these amazing veins that throb at the sides of his head, uttered: "Everything he's written is wonderful." I'm sure he wanted to say something else, something to put me in my place, but I accepted his chastisement and crossed my leg. It's a thing Jews do in remembrance of circumcision.

So I decided to correct my deficiency and ran to Barnes and Noble and picked up an anthology by Carver called: "Cathedral". I suppose I could have picked up a McCarthy book as well, but the circumcision thing...well, you know.

For the unenlightened, Carver wrote during the seventies and eighties, primarily in the short story market. His work appeared in The New Yorker and several literary magazines, the sort that people tend to buy because they look good on them at Starbucks. His work received tremendous praise. He was heralded as a minimalist. Some people described his writing as 'dirty realism'--a phrase which apparently means that writers forsake description to allow context to associate meaning.

After reading his work, I have two impressions. First, I respect Carver. He is a working class stiff who seeks to capture a moment, a feeling. He understands the absurdity and darkness of our lives. As a recovering alcoholic and a man who held all manner of jobs and suffered for his mistakes, his work feels like therapy. I recommend it. Is it Hemingway? No. Let me go further--hell, no. I know the post modernists will crucify me for this, but here's my second impression....

Many of the people who read Carver, or who are going to read Carver, are as far removed from a working class environment as they can get. And if they once came from a working class environment, then Carver allows them to look down their noses or to find some strange and sick fascination with people whom they would walk past quickly on the sidewalk.

I don't blame Carver. He probably did some major fist pumping when he was embraced by the literary elite, but I'll bet when he was home, kicking off his shoes and reading some literary interpretation of one of his short stories, that he probably chortled and said: "What a schmuck."

What did Carver have to say about writing? "I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact - so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting." (from the intro to 'Where I'm Calling From, 1998).

Now I love his economy. It stops the reader and presents him with a mirror. However, sometimes his stories, the ones I've read, lack in plot, internal or external conflict, or even theme. Dirty realism, you know. I suspect Carver stuck with short stories because he couldn't sustain theme or character development through a novel. He couldn't handle the pacing of a longer work or the consequences of certain scenes he painted. In that way, I think he was something of a cheat. Throw something down and then the critic can come along and praise it for what it doesn't do.

Hey, give me credit. I went out and read Carver. I wonder if the weak chinned individual with the nervous eyes and the frightening air of desperation as he massages his McCarthy novel is willing to step outside his 'literary' whorehouse and enter my whorehouse. You know...the work that is read by the real workingman and workingwomen and not the suburbanites who fly through the cities with their windows up and their doors locked.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summer Fades

Summer is fading. I wish I knew what to do to slow down experience and to hold onto the moment. Why is it that so much of life is spent looking backward.

With class done I am writing again, finishing this novel and working on a short story for an anthology. As I write and age, and listen to the sound of the night sliding against the side of the house, I worry about when I will lose my self-expression, or rather my self-perceived talent.

I have read many writers in their twilight. Some fade hard. Bradbury, who I love dearly, in his most recent works shows his age. His magic is sporadic. It's still there, but it sputters now and his ability to infuse each tale with it is hit and miss. Vonnegut struggled with age, didn't he? His work became manic and disjointed, still mistakably Vonnegut, but after all, "Timequake" was hardly "Slaughterhouse Five" or "Cat's Cradle". Steinbeck's greatest work was in the thirties and forties. He was magnificent in the fifties, but "The Winter of Discontent" and "Travels With Charlie" were hardly "Of Mice and Men" or "Grapes of Wrath".

Some writers never seem to lose a beat.

Some writers age and lose focus, their voice fades and falls into a sorry well.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Hitting the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, allow me to marvel at the lineup of bands that came together those three days. Of course, I think it is safe to say that some of those bands weren't exactly well-known when they appeared in upstate New York. And some of them had peaked already and were either on their way down, or desperately holding steady.

Jefferson Airplane is a good example of a band that had peaked. Their appearance at Woodstock kept them going for a little longer, but the days of "White Rabbit" were well behind them. On the other hand, bands like Santana, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash found their path upward made easier thanks to their appearances.

One of the things that strikes me about the artists who performed was how many of them were never associated with Woodstock, probably because their performances weren't captured on film. Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, CCR, The Band, and several others performed and were solid. And even some who were caught on film weren't done justice. Hendrix? Sly and the Family Stone? Ten Years After?

There is no way any one film could have truly captured the sets of these artists, and that's fine, that's part of the romance and the wonder of the phenomena. All we can do is look at the film, look at the list of performers, and appreciate what we missed, for our imagination can never match the reality. That might be a good thing. is a list of the performers at Woodstock. And, by the way, check out this site:

Richie Havens, Sweet Water, Tim Harden, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Biaz, Country Joe and The Fish, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Leslie West and Mountain, Santana, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix, Blood Sweat and Tears, Ten Years After, Crosby Stills and Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Who, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Band, John Sebastian

Friday, July 31, 2009

Never Again

Yet another poem??? Good grief. One more after this and you will probably not read any poetry from me for a very long time. Or who knows, maybe I'll find my inner poet and soar.


"Never again!"
The holocaust survivors nodded at this call to unity.
"Never again!"
I leaned back, thinking about the mazuzahs I never kissed
The Saturday mornings I've lounged in bed
The milk I've taken with beef at my soul's peril
"Never again!"
The cry is thunder, the occasion Kristalnacht rememberance.
We claim our humanity and love for justice
Tyranny shall find no friend here
"Never again!"
The Kurds at the hands of Hussein.
"Never again!"
These words move me as they've always moved me.
Now if they only meant something.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

At The Protest

My class is almost over. I have to redo a lengthy paper about grammar and finish the genre project, and then I can enjoy what little time is left of summer and maybe do some writing for myself. However, allow me to share the second poem. Sorry, Rick.


When he spit on me, I didn’t know what to feel.

He raged, face blister-red, veins snakelike.

Stunned, I was slow to move.

The police mistook inaction for prelude and acted.

Shoved back, baton against my collarbone,

I heard the comforting voice of Authority:


Fellows-in-arms slowed the protest line

to sing out encouragement and solidarity.

Non-violent platitudes fell away and my own rage

now ran slick down my face in the form of another man’s venom.

I remembered the lunch-counter footage.

I remembered those who sat unserved.

How did they keep their calm and suffer with dignity?

Did they have a choice?

Did they have more faith?

Or was it that they had more to lose?

Taking my white hands I pushed back against authority and was spun around

pressed hard against a brick wall, legs kicked back, off-balance.

Shouts of protest filled my ears as

fingers and cameras pointed in my direction.

The baton slid down the inside of first one celebrity leg, then another.

And with my heart exploding, I was gripped by one arm and led off.

Not to jail,

but away from the crowd for a stern lecture and warning.

Relieved and not brave, I headed home where my parents waited.

Next week, I had a concert to attend.

Summer was quickly…

Saturday, July 18, 2009


So, I'm taking this class on writing instruction (no, I'm not quite clear on why I would ruin my summer by taking classes) and we've finally gotten to the part on poetry. Anyone who knows me knows my views on poetry. I've scrawled my venom about that genre on enough "men's" rooms walls and underpasses.

One interesting concept though. In one essay I am reading, one of the authors discusses the idea that children are naturally attuned to poetry, that they respond to the rhythm, the feel, the musical quality. This idea about the physicality of poetry resonated with me because I could see a parallel between this view and Chomsky's ideas about how we're hotwired for language and our innate grammar emerges through conversation patterns that we're exposed to as small children. The disconnect for children where poetry is concerned then, perhaps, starts to occur when they are exposed to it in written form. Approaching it in that manner, seeing the words on the page removed from the context of the aural, perhaps for some, is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Just a thought. long as we're talking about poetry, one of my assignments was to write a poem. Now keep in mind that I am not a poet, nor have I even tried to write a poem in the last twenty five years. Some people have spoken about the poetic character of some of my prose, but that's far removed from constructing poetry. Okay. I'm stalling. What follows then is my first poem in a very long time. It's not good, but at least I'm trying to be open minded.











Friday, July 03, 2009

He Took My What?

Certain cultures have special psychological disorders. I don't know why, and worse, I don't know why I am writing about this, but, let's looks at a few of my favorites:

In Inuit culture there is something called pibloqtoq, a hysterical reaction that causes seizures and irrational behavior. According to one report, it is characterized by people tearing off their clothing and running outside. Several accounts have people tearing off their clothes and dashing naked into the nearest snowbank. Not good if that means dashing out in the midst of Alaskan winter.

In Nigeria, there is something referred to as Missing Penis Syndrome. No, I'm not making any of this up.This is an irrational fear that one's genitals have gone missing (missing as opposed to the Australian concept of going on a Walkabout). In 1997, there is a report of a lynch mob in Senegal hunting sorcerers with the power to shrink men's penises. According to a recent article in the Times of Nigeria , taxi drivers gathered to protest against a client they accused of using pigeons to steal penises (I researched this, people...look it up).

Another cultural disorder, not quite as strange as having one's penis magically taken, is Paris Syndrome. Apparently this is a condition exclusive to Japanese tourists. While in Paris they will sometimes just suffer total collapse due to culture shock. It is so bad that the Japanese embassy provides a 24 hour hotline for emergency care.

Finally there's Capgras delusion, a disorder in which you believe that someone you know has been replaced by a doppelganger, an identical looking impostor. I know. I know, it certainly would explain why the divorce rate is so high.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Working The Snake Oil

Why do you write about writing?

The question stopped me. I looked over and gave it consideration before speaking. "Usually when I write about writing it's a form of metacognition, it's a way I have of looking at the process and trying to get my head around what the hell I'm doing. Sometimes I write about certain aspects of it because it's on my mind; I'm either teaching some concept in school, or worse taking a class and it comes up. Sometimes it's based on something in a writer's group and I just need to get it out of my head."

Actually writing about writing is an entire industry. There's Lessons From A Lifetime of Writing (David Morrell), Sometimes The Magic Works(Terry Brooks), How To Write Best Selling Fiction (Dean Koontz) , Writer's Tale (Richard Laymon) Writing Mysteries (Sue Grafton), How To Write Fantasy And Science Fiction (Orson Scott Card), Creating Short Fiction-The Classic Guide To Writing Short Fiction (Damon Knight), Worlds of Wonder, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (David Gerrold) and on, and on, and on...and those are just about writing for a genre market! There are entire websites dedicated to books about writing. And let's not forget those staples of the professional writer: Writer's Market and Writer's Digest.

Yes, there are books on writing for the poets, for the do-it-yourself guru, and for the naturalist. There are writing books for the writers who take themselves too seriously and think about writing as a form of art and themselves as the consummate artists. There are books for writers who are terrified of writing. There are books for writers who have never written a word. There are books for the writers who follow other writers around at parties, whispering in their ears about a great novel yet to be written.

So, maybe that's the answer.

Maybe the key to writing and getting published, the most important aspect of writing is just....finding the right book. There's enough of them out there, from the literary hauter (James Wood) to the literary hack (fill in the blank...or point a finger at me). So forget about the basics, don't worry about spending hours reading, writing, editing, revising, editing, revising, and writing...just go buy a book and the secret will pour forth from its pages. Why struggle when success is at your fingertips???

Did you know Billy Mays is dead?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hypocrite? You say that like it's a bad thing

I think hypocrites have gotten a bad rep. What's the deal? If we all tried to behave as we expect others to, we'd hemorrhage. It's good to have high standards, but let's be realistic. Me? I'm a born again hypocrite. I embrace it. When people point accusing fingers and utter that word, I beam and embrace it. Hypocrite. Yes.

If you explore the etymology of the word you'll find it to be Middle English derived from Old French. According to the online dictionary, it means someone pretending to be something he is not. Another source added that it came from the Greek hypokrites, meaning "actor on the stage, pretending".

So ultimately, the greatest hypocrite is the greatest actor, and quite frankly, the best hypocrite is he who goes undiscovered. Perhaps the vile reception given to hypocrisy is that people don't like to be deceived. Really? I mean, Really? I think people adore deception, it frees them from responsibility and allows them to continue along a path without confronting behaviors and issues they might otherwise deal with. So perhaps they should embrace the hypocrite. Or perhaps they should embrace their inner hypocrite.

As Groucho Marx once said: "These are my principles...if you don't like them, I have others."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer's Drought

Have you been enjoying your summer film fare? I would wager that if you compare this summer to summer's past, you're probably finding it coming up short. Want proof? Look at this last weekend's fare, the weekend before Independence Day. What smash hits were released? A Sarah Bullock chick flick called "The Proposal" and a lame comedy "YearOne." Really? Really? Last year this time contenders for box office receipts were more promising: "Wanted", "The Incredible Hulk", "Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull","Get Smart" and "Kung Fu Panda" and "Wall-E". Not great films, but perfect summer fare. And waiting in the wings? "The Dark Knight", "Hellboy" and "Hancock".

So why is this summer so different? Why are there so few films out there vying for your popcorn money? Because of last year's writer's strike. Consider the decision to move "Star Trek" from winter 2008 to this summer, or the decision to do the same to "Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince". Without these two blockbuster titles, your summer would have been dominated by Michael Bey's new Transformer movie and that thing which is an adaptation of G. I. Joe.

Me? I don't plan on seeing many films this summer. Instead I'll smile and do a psychic fist bump with the screenwriters out there, too long taken for granted for what they provide. A bare summer? Yep. It's probably good for us. It's a chance to play in the sun and to revisit a more active vacation.