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Off The Vine [May. 10th, 2005|07:13 pm]
Written on Tuesday, May 3, 2005

I’m telling myself this journal is turning into a quarterly. The horror. Goes to show how busy I’ve been and how weak I can be at times.

It has been crazy, to be honest. Just last week, I returned from a one-week vacation in the Dominican Republic with David, where I spent my birthday with my parents and my sister, Jennifer. We spent three short days in Santo Domingo, the capital, and the rest of the week at an all-inclusive resort in the easternmost part of the island at Bavaro Beach. I’ll see if I can post a picture online later.

This trip, which was a surprise birthday gift from David, had more impact on me than I could imagine. It was almost 8 years since the last time I visited the Dominican Republic, and just as long since I’d last seen my father and my sister (I saw my mother last year in Germany, and in October 2001, when she visited me here in New York). After my emotional crisis in 2002 (just at the time when I stopped writing fiction), I recognized a pivotal change occur within me. I left behind the wonder of my youth (I used to think I could do anything I wanted and I believed it) and became a doubtful man. This new approach to life marred my confidence and prevented me for moving ahead with any project, whether it was personal, professional or artistic. To be blunt, 2002 to 2004 was the worst (and yet, here is the paradox, the best) period of my life.

But I got a therapist. I kept doing the things I liked, such as reading, attending author readings, drinking, and traveling. The writing I placed on hold… until the fog wall lifted, I told myself. But the wall didn’t even flicker for two solid years. I was stumped as to why I couldn’t write. Why I had lost all interest in writing. I even theorized that I had fooled myself for so long since a real writer would write no matter what difficulties life threw his way. Hell, Cervantes wrote DON QUIXOTE while in prison in Argamasilla in La Mancha and with a maimed left hand. If that’s not enough to bring on a huge case of self-doubt and a solid bout of writer’s block, then I have no reason to bitch and moan.

And so a few months ago I found out I was going back to Dominican Republic to visit my parents and my sister. To see the city I’ve left behind and the relatives and friends I no longer see. It scared me.

I got scared because my father and I barely talked and I wasn’t sure how I would approach him after so long. I was scared because I didn’t want to see some people from my past. I was scared, I now know, because I didn’t want to face my past.

“You must go and see them,” David told me. “You’ll see everyone’s no longer what you remember. Parents get older and you need to see them age.”

Wise words, I tell you.

It was a month or so before my departure that I spoke with my dear friend, mroctober. He had invited me to submit a story for his “So Fey” anthology. I guess he liked the few samples of my writing that he’s read and felt I could submit something worth of inclusion. After reading the guidelines and speaking with him, I knew I wouldn’t submit a story. The theme (fey characters) was something that turned me off since I don’t think of my writing as a) speculative, and b) fantastic. Among other things, that was the main reason I couldn’t think of a story that would satisfy Steve. I kindly turned down the invitation and went back behind the wall.

And then I found out about the trip. David had to tell me because I needed to renew my Green Card stamp on my passport to travel and he felt I had the right to prepare for the trip. Sometime during that time, Steve came to the city again and we met for a few drinks. He reinstated his invitation and challenged me to think of a story: “What kind of writer are you if you can’t accept a challenge? You can do it, but you won’t.” His words remained with me.

I thought of a fantastical creature I could write about and found one in the Dominican folkloric tales I heard as a child. I thought of the characters and the story and how I could get them all to fit in the story. And it was my upcoming trip that tied it all together.

A week after Steve’s visit I sat in front of my computer and wrote a 6,000 word story, titled “Off the Vine.” The words flowed and the story, in my opinion, works. I am very happy at the outcome and I thought Steve would be as well. Turns out I misunderstood a part of his request (“anything up to 1,000 words would be great”—I heard “anything, even a 1,000 words, would be great”). Steve wants me to cut 5,000 words out of the story and I cannot see it work with 5,000 words gone. So I keep the story.

The story does need some trimming (and some rewriting in parts), but I am working on that right now (sometimes). I’m sad the story will not be included in Steve’s book, which promises to be a great book, but I’m grateful to Steve for getting me started again. He stirred my languid brain and it may turn out to be that his challenge will have far-reaching consequences later on. I wanted to thank him in this venue, so here it is: Thank you, Steve.

I already thanked David.

To see my old apartment the same as the last time I saw it. The old toaster (one can only toast one slice at a time), or the old sandwich maker (yes, you guessed it: only one side heats up), or the old clothes hamper in the bathroom, or my old Teddy Bear (as old as I am, if not longer (taking into account manufacturing))… it all was uncomfortably comforting. I felt a deep sadness to see my parents live surrounded by the objects of a past life. My mom was unhappy and my dad had buried himself (almost literally if you visit the service room, which is filled with empty boxes, computer parts, books and garbage) behind a wall of his own. He’s been hiding there for a few years now.

But a few days later the house brightened and my parents blossomed. My mother got a haircut from David and put on a pair of jeans. She laughed almost constantly and so did I. My dad, who is really a great guy with a quiet sense of humor, laughed as well.

It was okay to sleep in the old room and hear the familiar sounds. It was okay to be back in your childhood room as an adult.

And upon our return I felt the change. I felt a new sense of connection with my prior self (I brought back a few of the old records I used to listen to as a child and the books that I first collected). I remembered why I loved to read so much. Why I wanted to write so bad.

I thought, “maybe I write to keep the demons away,” as someone smarter and far more prolific once said. Maybe the demons won the prize for the past two years. But, if anything, my life is calm now and I discovered that I read and write because it’s what I do. The joke was always on me. There were no demons.

And I’ve been reading. And writing. I finished reading Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER series and wrote a few scenes for BLACK END SESSIONS. It looks as if I will also write my short story “Dies Mala” after all. But…yes, I finally reached the Tower and I got to see what was on that top room.

Written today, Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Right after completing the series, I read Bev Vincent’s THE ROAD TO THE DARK TOWER: EXPLORING STEPHEN KING’S MAGNUS OPUS, which I finished last night.

Today I started reading Poppy Z. Brite’s PRIME. In my next entry I will review the Dark Tower series and Bev Vincent’s book. Soon after, I will post my thoughts on PRIME.

P.S.: To my Mercyground friends: thank you for your heartfelt birthday wishes. I read them all and will respond to each one as soon as I post this entry. Too bad I won’t get to see you this coming week. Next year, though…
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Oddities and Curiosities [Feb. 22nd, 2005|03:49 pm]
After three months, I can say I’ve been gone for too long. A new year has started since my last post and I find myself wary of writing now. Too much has happened and I don’t want to give a complete list of my activities since my last post, but I know I must start somewhere. So, I’ve decided to give a brief recap of my last few months here at the beginning and then I’ll finish with some thoughts, oddities and curiosities.

I guess the biggest news is that I finally moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I live in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that suits me well since I’ve loved it from the very first time in this city. My stories are set in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood rife with history, daily horrors (see below), and mystery, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find myself living in a neighborhood that holds so much inspiration for me.

I’m so close to everything now that I can walk to SoHo in 15 minutes. Chinatown in 10 minutes. East Village in 5 minutes. Hell, I can even walk home from work if I want to in 45 minutes (something I do in warm nights). Anyway, living in the Lower East Side has been good for my soul. I find myself more at peace with my surroundings (let’s not forget this is New York City though, and safety is never guaranteed—as I mentioned above, see below).

I haven’t written anything in a while. A long time ago my muse packed her bags and went on a leave of absence. It’s not a secret to my friends that last summer I became so troubled by my lack of enthusiasm for the writing that once meant everything to me. I also looked different, topping the scales at a scary 190 lbs, the biggest I’ve ever been (I’m 5’11”). I moved through my life without a goal and that sunk me into such a state of depression that I sought help from a therapist. I believe in being proactive when it comes to your health and obviously I didn’t have the tools to fight whatever it was that ailed me.

I can’t claim that I know exactly what is going on but small discoveries mark the way to the loot. I’m this close. But that sense of despair has disappeared. That weight is gone and going (I’m now at 179 and heading for 165). My finances are improving and I have great people in my life. And the muse, well… she’s sending postcards now.

Last month I was invited to star in a music video by my friend Gabrielle Stubbert, of Smith Island. The video was for a song titled “Coma,” which I see listed in her website. The video for “Coma” tells the story of Gabrielle’s mother who as a young woman fell into a coma and awoke to tell her bizarre, psychedelic hallucinations while asleep. Doctors and nurses turned into mechanics, working on her with gigantic tools and saws. Her bed would float above Earth and beyond into the sky, where she would see everything.

For the video, Gabrielle flew in her mother from Los Angeles to play the nurse. I play the doctor. Our friend Dierdre plays the young coma patient (she’s the face for Smith Island—that’s her you see in the front page, not Gabrielle).

So, the video is ready and premieres tomorrow at Arlene’s Grocery here in NYC. Please, come on by and see me in a music video as menacing as you’ll ever see me.

Last week I was thrilled to see Peter Straub read at the KGB Bar. Mr. Straub read an unpublished essay/story about the conceits of film noir and their characters. I was sitting right in front of him by the bar. Ellen Datlow was there also, as was Kelly Link and others. It’s always fun to see one of your favorite writers read their work (and if you haven’t read Straub you must! “Pork Pie Hat” is a great novella which can be found in his book “Magic Terror”.

Oddity: Let’s talk about my new abode. Here’s an incident that gave me the cold chills that extreme coincidence can only provide. In 1999 I was cast as an extra in the motion picture “Boiler Room” with Ben Affleck, Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Jamie Kennedy, Vin Diesel and so on… I walked in to a casting office with a friend of mine who wanted to try out for an ad and instead I got the job in the movie. For two days I was on set and was included in various scenes. The film is there and most of my scenes are in the beginning. In one of those scenes, after the stockbroker trainees pour into the hotel to celebrate you can see me come up to a bar and put my arms around a fellow extra. An unknown then the actor on whose shoulder I rested my arm was Desmond Harrington. I saw him years later in Steven Spielberg’s TV show “Taken” which I mostly enjoyed and remembered him from those days on the set of “Boiler Room.”

Ok, so we fast forward to my move to my new apartment. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter addressed to no other than Desmond Harrington at my new address. Turns out he was the prior tenant at my new place.

Desmond, if you ever read this, give your female French friend your new address.

Odd: My next door neighbor lives in complete darkness since he has no electricity nor gas. An older man, I figured he knew the building owner somehow or is one of the original tenants who could never be evicted. He hardly moves in his apartment except very late at night, like last night when I heard a slight thump on the wall next to my pillow.

Hair Rising: Did you read about that aspiring actress who got shot here in New York a few weeks ago, a Nicole duFresne? That happened directly across the street from my building. Remember, safety is never guaranteed.

But despite these oddities I still love my neighborhood. It puts my senses into a frenzy and it’s the most alive I’ve felt in years. No wonder the cloud is lifting and my muse is itching to come back home. I just have to clean the house before she comes back. You know how it is: you don’t want a loved one to come back to dishes in the sink.

P.S.: I must thank my friend galatea_world for her wonderful hospitality last year when she invited David and me to a concert with her. It was most gracious and we both loved it. Sorry I’ve been disconnected, Racquel… Drinks sometime soon?

P.P.S: Why did Paris Hilton have Stephen King’s email in her Sidekick? I don’t think she can take time away from her narcissistic idolatry to say, read even the slimmest of SK’s books… oh, yeah, I forget: Paris Hilton is an author… No. I still don’t understand.
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The Short of It [Dec. 2nd, 2004|06:29 pm]
So Bush was reelected. War is still waging. Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas is in three weeks. I spent the last month freaking out about an immigration interview that was postponed, hiding in my cave until now. I’ve resolved I won’t stress out about the interview. After 12 years of constant stress, I need some respite.

No one cares about my reaction to the election, so I’ll spare you. The only good thing that happened that week was that I ran into Anthony Bourdain, author of “Kitchen Confidential” and the new “Les Halles Cookbook,” during my lunch break on 6th Ave., between 56th & 57th St. Maybe he was on his way to Alain Ducasse’s Mix on 58th (two doors down from my workplace)—not! (David went to dinner at Mix a few weeks ago. Not having eaten there before I went online to check what Chowhound foodies and other critics had to say about the place… turns out they serve the equivalent of cow dung and skunk manure. I warned David but he “had” to go. $90 later and with his taste buds on strike, he concurred). So, I must buy a copy of “Les Halles Cookbook,” and get myself to the restaurant someday. I’ve lived here for 6 years now and I’ve never eaten there yet, so…

Oh, I guess I lied in my last entry. I never got around to finishing Dan Simmons’s “Summer of Night.” I don’t discount the merits of this book but I just could not get through it. It’s on hold until I feel the urge to pick it up again and complete it.

Instead of finishing that tome I embarked on other reading adventures. Around Halloween I picked up a copy of ”Stories of Terror and Madness From the Borderlands,” edited by Elizabeth E. & Thomas F. Monteleone. This is how I would break this book down: The Monteleone’s effort to let the reader know that one is about to read a collection of “unique” stories is made clear in the foreword. There are no “vampires or ghosts or serial killers or witches or were-creatures or anything else you’ve already read somewhere else.” I guess they’re right. There are no vampire or ghost stories. Personally, I don’t understand the bias against ghost stories. Every writer of the genre has written at least one ghost story and when the author succeeds a ghost story can creep out a reader more than a tale of the bizarre or that which lies in the Twilight Zone. That’s the thing. The Monteleone’s love The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty evident. I love The Twilight Zone as well but I wouldn’t go as far as calling a Twilight Zone-inspired story “terror.” ‘Strange,’ yes. ‘Weird,’ yes. ‘Suspense,’ yes. But ‘terror,’ no. Let’s get our definitions right: ‘Terror,’ that overwhelming, “intense, overpowering” fear is what I feel when, after reading a story, I cannot turn off my light until I watched a bit of TV to clean my palate. Or, when I call a friend on the phone and leave a rambling message to calm myself. Or, when I think I notice something move in the corner of my eye and avert my eyes to the spot to feel my heart race in my chest. But, when I finish reading a story and I find myself thinking, “wow, that was strange,” or “cool concept and neat ending,” I’m not terrorized, I’m just awed because I’ve seen a writer set off some nifty fireworks. Or do the ‘rabbit-out-of-the-hat’ trick.
Ghost stories like Oliver Onions’s ’The Beckoning Fair One’, or disturbing stories like Ramsey Cambell’s “Again,” or Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice,” or Algernon Blackwood’s ”The Willows” are stories of terror. They filled me with a sense of dread, of ultimate creepiness and foreboding, that I have never forgotten them.

In “Borderlands” we are treated to some fine writing and some adequate tales. John R. Platt succeeds with his story “All Hands,” about a man who wakes up every morning with a different set of hands, each belonging to someone else. “Faith Will Make You Free,” by Holly Newstein, is a retelling of the Jewish myth of the Golem. This story is one of my favorites in the book and the author shows a lot of promise in her writing. John F. Merz tells a great story with “Prisoner 392,” immersing the reader in the mind of a prisoner who plans and executes a prison break with surprising results. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed David J. Schow’s “The Thing Too Hideous To Describe,” a story of Lovecraftian sensibilities about a giant worm-like creature that lives on the side of a town, the ‘Thing’ all fear the most, and its intense loneliness. It was the artist Seal who once sang “it’s loneliness that’s the killer,” and this story illustrates that point. I say that I was surprised to enjoy this story because I have previously found Schow’s writing somewhat inaccessible. Oh, and then there’s Stephen King’s “Stationary Bike.” Now, the first few pages reminded me of my last visit to my doctor’s office, earlier in November, when I when to get the results of my blood work and a physical. The only thing the doctor found unusual was a high cholesterol and triglycerides reading. He recommended I lose a few pounds and get some exercise. The conversation with my doctor went almost exactly like the one in King’s story and that was affecting. And to think I was considering buying a stationary bike, or turning my bicycle into a stationary bike during the winter months… (I’ve already lost some 7 pounds and get my exercise walking the streets of New York).

Overall, an interesting book, yet not one for the records.

I also read Amy Tan’s ”The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life”. This one I read in two days. I like Amy Tan and this is a perfect book for the Amy Tan fan. To read about her mother is worth the price of the book alone, but it is when writing about her art that she shines.

Yesterday, I completed “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chanber of Astonishing Stories”, edited by Michael Chabon. This is one of those ‘wet dream’ books: new stories by Poppy Z. Brite, Peter Straub, Stephen King, China Mieville, and more. What in Hollywood would be called a “star-studded cast.” Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits and Joyce Carol Oates.

First, let’s talk Poppy Z. Brite’s (you must think, “gee, this dude can’t stop babbling about Poppy Z. Brite”—well, I won’t. Deal with it.) “The Devil of Delery Street.” Some fans haven’t stopped their bitching and moaning about Brite’s exit from the horror arena. A lot of people want her to write another “Lost Souls,” or “Exquisite Corpse,” and claim her current writing lacks the chills of her earlier efforts. Here’s what I have gathered: Poppy is done writing “horror” novels. Not gonna happen, folks. No “Lost Souls: The Reunion Tour.” No “Exquisite Corpse: The Feast.” If anything, the only horrors one can find in her novels now are in the kitchen of some restaurant or the mind of some overworked chef. But, for those who still pine for her stories of the “bizarre”, well, there’re her short stories. The “horror,” if one must call it that, continues in her short fiction. In the case of “The Devil of Delery Street,” just because the title includes the word “Devil” and the story features a poltergeist of sorts, one must not think this is a horror story. It’s horror if you’re part of the Stubbs family. In the Stubbs &/or Rickey stories published so far we see Poppy Z. Brite record a different sort of horror: coming of age and family. In “The Value of X,” Brite’s first novel about Gary Stubbs & John Rickey, we witness the painful coming of age for both boys. It is after an “outing” of sorts and a separation that John & G-Man become men. In the chapbook “The Feast Of St. Rosalie” we see Rosalie Stubbs come of age shrouded in religious imagery, “stepping” out from her cave into womanhood. And in “The Devil in Delery Street” we witness the youngest Stubbs girl, Mary Louise, move from childhood into her teenage years in an unsettling way. My theory may be flawed and it may require a rereading of this family’s saga in order to pass muster, but I believe no Stubbs child enters into adulthood without some suffering. Seems a broad statement, I know, but read the stories and you’ll know what I mean. It’s not easy being a Stubbs.

Poppy has crossed over to the literary arena. This book aligns her with the greatest writers in modern literature and I couldn’t be happier. The woman deserves her kudos.

Peter Straub, yet again, writes an excellent, magnificent short story in “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle.” This is not quite up there with “Pork Pie Hat” (a story so magnificent it can make you cry), but it is a fine tale. Heidi Julavits creeps us out with a rather simple story, and Daniel Handler handles the “locked room” mystery with interesting dialog and pitch-perfect characters. Stephen King, sadly, wanders a few pages too many with “Lisey and the Madman,” a story that somehow feels as light as a Chinese puff pastry. But, this collection is fine and a must-read, so go out and get it.

My next reading project will prove a challenge: today I start reading the first tome in the Stephen King The Dark Tower series, “The Gunslinger.” I have a few thousand pages ahead of me, but I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. I will review the whole series in a future entry.

That, my friends, is what I’ve been up to as of late. Oh, I almost forgot! My dear friend, mroctober has turned my name into a pharmaceutical brand! I am honored and amused about this. Please, go read his story ”The Eater of Elevation.” The guy can write.
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"I'd fight that sucker in a phone booth" [Oct. 9th, 2004|01:15 pm]
A very loud bird is screeching outside of my window. Somehow, despite its desperate sound, it pleases me that I can hear wildlife in Manhattan. Suppossedly, if one walks around Central Park and looks up to the trees one can see a myriad of birds (and this book: "Red-Tails In Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park", suggests there is something to the rumor), and even more surprising, if you're ever around Brooklyn College, look above... you might see this. It's a city full of pleasant surprises.

I've been busy with work. Tomorrow I leave for three days to a conference in upstate New York. I'm taking my copy of Dan Simmons's "Summer of Night", which I've been reading since I finished Robert McCammon's "Speaks the Nightbird". That's over 4 weeks, right? Not good. I will post my review once I finish the book, but as Kathy Bates says in the film "Stephen King's The Stand": "It doesn't look good to the kid right now." I'm not dying to finish this book. My main problem is with Simmons's characters and how poorly drawn they are (with the exception of Duane). I can't keep the characters apart in my head because they simply do not "jump" from the page. This preliminary review notwithstanding (I'm about halfway through with this book), I will read the sequel to "Summer of Night": "A Winter Haunting". This award-winning book has mixed reviews, so I'm hopeful the charaters and story will improve the second time around. But first, I will complete "Summer of Night."

Next book I read won't be horror. Sometimes I need to break it up.

And talking about horror... can someone please explain to me what in the world is going on with this (Discussion forum, toward the bottom... find the threads titled "Poe's Progeny" and "Gcw...a life")? I just will say that Ramsey Campbell has proven himself to be a modern classic and this kind of personal, libelous attack is painful to see. I don't wish to involve myself in this at all, but man, oh, man... Some people need to nurture a life beyond the internet.

Ah, and last week I found a copy of Poppy Z. Brite's Brittish paperback (1st edition) of "Lost Souls" in excellent condition for $4. Ah, some people don't know a good thing when they have it. I also found a first edition hardcover (UK Edition) of Ramsey Campbell's "The Face That Must Die" for... yeah, you guessed it: $4. And to think that a month ago I saw a copy of PZB's UK Paperback (1st edition) of "Exquisite Corpse," for $6, but didn't get it because I already own 3 copies of the book. There's a reason why they call NYC the "book capital of the world"
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This Way to the Wax Museum! [Sep. 21st, 2004|12:58 pm]
I'll preface this by saying: I'm a dork. Not a secret. I've said it before.

Anyway, today, on my way back from getting fingerprinted by INS for my green card, I got out at the 5th Ave. F subway stop and walked toward my job. I saw the NY Public Library Branch next to the station and walked in, wondering if they might have a copy of Oliver Onion's "Widdershins", a book I've wanted to read for ages.

They didn't have it, so I started to walk out, when I noticed someone sitting by a catalog computer... someone very familiar: Zach Galligan!

Now, I'm not a star-fucker, or care much for actors and the like (I've met more than a few here and there...), but the movie "Waxwork" (both of them), is one of my all-time favorites. It's a campy horror flick from the 80s and I love everything about it. I know the lines by heart.

Anyway, there was Zach Galligan, and I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't greet him, so I did. I told him how much I loved "Waxwork," and how pleased I was to meet him. He shook my hand. And that was it.

He walked out soon after and so did I.

Have to tell you, that made my day. It was so darned cool.

Scratch one off my list.
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Breaking News [Sep. 13th, 2004|01:11 pm]
My final immigration interview (God willing!) is on November 22, 2004. Everyone, please cross your fingers for me.

And... holy shit! I won $1,250 on a lottery sweepstakes today! It's a scratch off sheet that came in the Daily News paper yesterday and they print a set of number to scratch off every day this week. Today I matched $1,000 and $250 three times, so I won. I still have tomorrow, Wednesday, Thursday & Friday, so I have four more chances to win. I will let you know if I'm still lucky with this sheet. Keep it coming, I say!
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"Speaks the Nightbird" by Robert McCammon: A Review [Sep. 2nd, 2004|10:50 am]
Speaks the Nightbird

A few years ago, in 1999 or thereabouts, I read on the internet that Robert R. McCammon had retired from writing after his last novel in 1992. After reading most of his novels and loving them, including the epic "Swan Song," and the suspenseful and tender "Boy's Life," I had welcomed McCammon into my list of favorite writers. Turns out McCammon was disillusioned with the publishing industry, a common feeling among writers. Like his colleague Poppy Z. Brite would proclaim later on (as well as Clive Barker), McCammon was done with writing horror books and wanted to move on. His publishers, reticent to give his work the respect he felt it deserved, were not open to the idea of books outside of the genre and McCammon retired. The New York publishers wanted him to churn out the same book year after year, crippling any chances of originality and growth. You can read all about it in this interview.

But like any other writer who is compelled to do his bidding regardless of remuneration or recognition, McCammon could not stop writing. A fan of constant, painstaking research, he wrote two historical novels before his retirement: one a mystery, the other a war novel.

I remember reading the first issue of the now defunct online magazine "The Spook" and noticing McCammon's name listed in the credits page. He had made a sort of comeback as an editor, yet his writing was not featured in the magazine. That is, until a few issues later, when it was announced to great fanfare that "The Spook" would serialize one of those novels McCammon had written before his retirement, "Speaks the Nightbird." Of course, I looked forward to the serialization and printed them out as they were released. Abruptly, the serialization ended because McCammon had sold the novel to a local publisher, River City Publishing, and we were told to wait for its imminent release.

I bought the novel upon its release, but it wasn't until two weeks ago that I started to read it. At first, I was intimidated by the novel's heft (726 pages), but considering how I love long novels I pressed on.

The novel opens with two men sitting on a horse-pulled wagon, a magistrate (Isaac Woowdward) and his clerk (Matthew Corbett), in the year 1699, who have left the port city of Charles Town (nowadays Charleston) for the village of Fount Royal. The magistrate has been summoned by Fount Royal's mayor, Robert Bidwell, to bring peace upon his stricken town. Ritualistic murders have claimed the town's reverend and two men. Citizens blame the wife of one of the victims, Rachel Howarth, a Portuguese immigrant of witchcraft and beg for her death. Bidwell, in efforts to abide by the law and to bring some measure of progress to his settlement, insists that the witch is tried and accused properly.

Woodward, an aging magistrate who has crossed the ocean from England with a great secret in tow, is a fair man. Like most men of his time, he was aware of the Salem Witch Trials, though he had not presided over a witchcraft trial himself. His clerk, Matthew, an inquisitive adolescent at the beginning of the novel, is eager to learn the tools of his master's trade, yet he differs from Woodward. His curiosity is his greatest weapon (and weakness), but he lacks the fine education of his master.

Fount Royal is populated by a set of genuine characters that accurately portray what life must have been like in the british colonies during 1699. There is the schoolmaster, Johnstone, who wears makeup and a hobbles with a bad knee. There's Lucretia Vaughn, a low class woman that aspires for dignity and finesse but is halted by her perpetual mediocrity. There's a ratcatcher, a gaol keeper, a blacksmith, and more. It is in these characters, and in the stories they tell of the witch or how she has affected them, that the story unravels.

As the accused sits in the gaol, the testimonies and accusations mount and the case grows stronger. It is Matthew, with his curiosity and the prodding of a well-intentioned character, who decides to investigate the claims further and discover what is really at work in Fount Royal.

It's impressive to witness how McCammon fleshes out a story with so many possibilities and outcomes. His research of the time is evident in the clothing, the language, the architecture and social mores displayed throughout the novel. Oh, and how he succeeds! He manages to mount the suspense from chapter to chapter, offering a new discovery every few pages and effectively sustaining the sense of urgency. This is the same McCammon who wrote "Swan Song," "They Thirst," and "Mystery Walk," but he sounds more confident.

With chapters that average between 20-30 pages, the rhythm of the reading is clipped but continuous, flowing, perfect for a mystery novel such as this one. Almost every character comes to life with such vibrancy that it is almost impossible to believe how well formed they are. The character of Exodus Jerusalem, a bible-thumping, lecherous preacher who makes his way into Fount Royal, is one of the most powerful characters I have read about in the last 5 years. It's important to have every character command the scene in certain ways, and McCammon succeeds in making sure there are no worthless characters.

This novel is a complete success. It is an interesting, worthy read and I cannot imagine a reason why it shouldn't be read everywhere. It is a love story, a story of progress, of enlightenment. It is a heart-wrenching, life-affirming book that reminds us what great literature is. Man, I loved, loved, loved this book. If anything, I am sad that I won't get to read it for the first time again. I haven't had so much fun reading in a while.

Please, make sure you pick up this gem. You can buy the two paperbacks (the book was split in two tomes due to its length), or hunt down the hardcover on Abebooks, or borrow it from your local library if you can't part with your money (though I advocate the support of our artists-- buy their books, cheapskate!).

You see? Great books happen when you give authors the freedom to write what they love. Editors everywhere, heed this call: do what you know how to do, which is to edit and let the authors do what they know best, which is to tell a story. Love your author and stop acting like the desperate, white-trash surrogate mother who wants to decide how the biological parent will raise her own kid.
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The Sounds of a Village [Aug. 25th, 2004|01:35 pm]
Since everyone knows how I worship James Newton Howard, the film composer, it should come as no surprise that in the last two weeks I've had the score for The Village on repeat play. James shines once again with an understated, elegant score. Violinist Hilary Hahn textures the cues with her solos and it almost sounds like tumbling leaves in the Fall. Like clear ravine water on it course downstream.

This score mirrors James's earlier score for Snow Falling on Cedars, another great score. To think of it, I don't think I've heard a score by James that fell off its mark. The guy is a genius.

And what I would give to spend half an hour with him. As it is my story, I always meet the celebrities or artists I could do without meeting, and the ones I admire remain elusive.

I cannot wait for James's score for the upcoming film The Interpreter.
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"Peaceable Kingdom" by Jack Ketchum: A Review [Aug. 24th, 2004|06:31 pm]
I have attended two Bram Stoker Awards weekends so far. I am not a member of the Horror Writers Association and yet I attend. I love horror and it gives me something to do during a weekend in the summer. I also get to go home at night, which is great.

I’ve met some interesting people during those two weekends. Some of those in attendance have known each other for years and it shows. They’re the ones that hover in corners and hide the liquor in the bathtubs. Or they are welcoming and inviting. You know how conventions can be.

During the two years I’ve attended writer Jack Ketchum has been in attendance. The first time I met him he was walking around the penthouse with a bottle of absinthe. He was of the gregarious, inviting kind. A very funny guy who didn’t hesitate to crack a joke with me, even though he’d never seen me before. It’s the kind of thing one appreciates later.

This year I saw him again and I think he remembered me. I think. Regardless, I saw him walking around the penthouse with a glass of scotch. The man knows his drinks.

My dirty secret during these past two years was that I hadn’t read any work by any of the authors present, except Peter Straub. So, there I was commiserating with Jack Ketchum and I didn’t dare mention any of his books. This year, before the weekend ended I bought a copy of his short story collection "Peaceable Kingdom" and his novel "Red."

Around the beginning of this month I started to read "Peaceable Kingdom." As I always do, I read all stories in order. At first, I was worried that I would be presented with a collection of graphic, hyper-masculine horror short stories which try to evoke a sense of dread by showing us how gruesome a death can be. The first story, "The Rifle," while clear and unnerving, posits a notion that many of those hyper-masculine authors love to write about: a mother discovers her son displays all the signs of becoming a serial killer (he eviscerates small animals, shows a marked interest in weapons, and is more than an outcast). I efforts to avoid a certain disaster in the future, the mother surprises the kid in his hideout and snuffs him with a rifle. To be very honest, I didn’t care too much for this story. It seemed Mr. Ketchum was going for the shock and not the emotional distress he intended. Maybe it was because the character of the son wasn’t all that developed and I couldn’t identify with him, nor feel pity for his assassination. Maybe it was because I couldn’t believe the mother would blow him away for something she wasn’t sure of. Regardless, the story did not hold for me and since I believe the first story sets the tone for the rest of the book, I didn’t feel to hopeful for this collection.

The second story, "The Box," was more of my cup of tea. A man and his children are riding the Metro North Railroad back home after a day of shopping in New York City, when a stranger sits before them. He carries a box and one of the kids is curious as to its contents. The stranger allows for the boy to take a peek at his box to appease his curiosity. Once home, the kid refuses to eat. And he does not eat the following day. Nor the next day. Once the kid tells his sisters what was in the box, they also stop eating. It is up to the father to ride the train hoping to see the man again to find out how to undo what has been brought upon his children (and wife). It is a bleak, unfortunate story, that though a tad loose in its reasons, it manages to evoke the right feelings of desperation and fear. My kind of story exactly. If anything, this story revived my hopes for the book and I was eager to find more like it.

The following stories, "Mail Order" and "Luck" did not impress me as much. "Mail Order," a revenge story that holds all of its weight on coincidence, goes for the shock like "The Rifle." "Luck," a western, was lost on me. I have no clue what happened and it is not a story I am likely to read again.

The tone of the book remains pessimistic and masculine throughout. It is obviously the writing of a man who likes to make people flinch. He manages to create some violent, repulsive imagery (he has a tendency to write about child killers, rapists, or sadists), and his language is brisk, concise and effective.

Among my favorite stories are "The Business," "Twins" (a great, original piece), "The Holding Cell," "Forever" (another excellent story-- this one drips with pathos), and "Closing Time," winner of the Best Long Short Fiction Bram Stoker Award this year. "Closing Time" tells the story of two lovers who have split just around the time of September 11, 2001. It is a painful time for the city of New York and most of its citizens are trying to find a new purpose in their lives. There is a criminal, a professional robber, who decides to take advantage of the vulnerability of the people in New York, and goes on a crime spree, robbing bars around closing time. All characters meet and the ending, an explosive, dramatic showdown, works wonderfully with the story. This was one great piece of writing and a worthy winner of the award bestowed upon it.

The collection closes with a story much like "The Rifle," dripping with violence, and it is with a certain foulness in the mouth that I closed the book. It took me two weeks to complete this book, which is not that bad, but not ideal. Maybe it was those "look at the blood I can shed" kind of stories, maybe it was the innumerable typos or just my affinity for stories with more fleshed out characters, but this collection could have been more. It is a great book and the talent is evident—Ketchum knows how to weave a story, yet I felt as one does when being shown a parade of freaks just to see a reaction. It’s the case of the stories that draw attention to themselves by the noise they make.

I realize my review seems mostly negative and it should not be taken as such. This was a good book, just not all that it could be. Not every story in a short collection shines, so the few clunkers in this book are allowed.

Regardless, I am looking forward to "Red," even if I have the impression that the book will hold as many nasty, ultra-masculine moments as his collection of short stories.

Just as I closed the book, I picked up my copy of Robert McCammon’s "Speaks the Nightbird". It has been sitting on my shelf since its release in 2002, so I thought it was time to read it. On that first day I read a good 50 pages, and by today, a mere 5 days later I am halfway through this doorstopper. I haven’t read a book as exciting, accomplished and entertaining as this one in a while, so I am thrilled to spend most of my free time immersed in its pages. It is everything a book should be and pretty soon I will post my review here.

Here’s my newfangled, absolutely personal and subjective rating system for books reviewed (a score of 1 being the worst and 10 perfection):

Title: "Peaceable Kingdom"
Author: Jack Ketchum
Publisher & Edition : Leisure Books. August 2003 (paperback)
Writing (1 to 10) : 8
Characterization (1 to 10) : 6
Plots (1 to 10) : 8
Style (1 to 10) : 7
Voice (1 to 10) : 8
Originality (1 to 10) : 8
Design & Packaging (1 to 10) : 4
Editing (1 to 10) : 2 (did anyone look at this at Leisure?)
Overall Rating (1 to 10) : 7.5
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Choke on That [Aug. 9th, 2004|07:30 pm]
I didn't know Chuck Palahniuk had a male partner until today. Good for him.
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