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New short story collection: ‘I Know George Washington’

Available FREE for subscribers of Amazon Kindle Unlimited:

($2.99 for non Kindle Unlimited subscribers)

I Know George Washington: and other stories: five dark tales

View it on Amazon!

Five dark tales of crime, supernatural horror, and suspense…

In Tennessee, a father and his adolescent daughter must battle two evil men who harbor sinister intentions toward one of them.

In Zacatecas, Mexico, a recent college graduate takes a job as a private English language tutor for a wealthy family. But the entire household is hiding a horrible secret.

In Virginia, a young stockbroker’s colleagues insist that George Washington, the First President of the United States, is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

In rural Ohio, curiosity compels two travelers to stop at an abandoned schoolhouse with an evil history, and a reputation for ghostly activity.

In western Pennsylvania, a junior high student learns that his beloved teacher is not what he purports to be. 

A collection of five unique stories, each of which contains an unexpected twist.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the stories in this collection:

“The Van”: While traveling through Tennessee, a single father and his 13-year old daughter encounter two men who take an unwholesome interest in one of them. 

“Thanatos Postponed”: A recent college graduate takes a job as a private tutor at the estate of a wealthy businessman in Zacatecas, Mexico. But there is something horribly wrong in the palatial residence high in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. 

“I Know George Washington”: A young man’s new work colleagues insist that George Washington is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

“One-room Schoolhouse”: A young couple stop at an abandoned schoolhouse in rural Ohio. The schoolhouse is reputed to be haunted. 

“Mr. Robbie’s Secret”: a beloved English teacher is not what he appears to be. 

I hope you enjoy these stories.

Venetian Springs: Chapter 1

Mark Baxter couldn’t help noticing that his wife, Gina, was not focused on the budget discussion. 

She wasn’t looking at the legal pad between them on the surface of the kitchen table. 

The legal pad contained a tally of their income and expenses. These were the numbers that would determine whether or not they could keep the house, or maybe just keep their heads above water. 

They were both second-year teachers at a public high school in Indianapolis, Indiana. Money was tight. They needed to talk about this. 

But Gina was looking up and away, her brown eyes having drifted to the doorway between the kitchen and the back hallway of the house. 

In one hand she was twirling a strand of her dark chestnut hair. That was another sign of her distraction. 

He had first met Gina six years ago, when they were both students at Indiana University in Bloomington. (Back then she had been Gina Tortelli—not Gina Baxter—of course.) 

On their first date, he had caught her twirling her hair like that. Mark had asked her what was up. Gina had mentioned that she didn’t want to get serious with anyone before she graduated from college. Mark had replied that it was only their first date. Gina had said, yes, but I’m afraid this is going to be serious. I already like you a lot. 

Mark often smiled at that memory. He had already like her a lot, too. 

But now, six years later, they were married, young teachers, homeowners, and there was this other thing—the budget—to talk about. And Gina wasn’t talking about it, because she was distracted. 

Mark thought he knew what was on Gina’s mind—but he didn’t want to bring up the subject again. They’d already talked about it too much.

The intruder. Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.  

The numbers wouldn’t wait, though.

“You’re thinking about the intruder again, aren’t you?” he finally said.

“No,” she said. “Yes—not exactly. I heard something out back, near the back door.”

Gina indicated the rear hallway, beyond the kitchen, which led to the back door.

“What did you hear?”

“It sounded like someone was trying to break in.” 

Mark restrained a sigh. Gina was looking to him for support—for something. He didn’t want to come across as condescending. But he couldn’t accept what she was saying, either.

Gina had been convinced of late that someone was entering their house during the daytime hours, when both of them were at school, teaching classes. 

When he’d asked the cause of suspicions, Gina’s explanations had been a little vague, to say the least. She’d claimed that she’d noticed little things out of place around the house. Subtle signs.

So Mark had dutifully checked all the doors and windows. He’d seen no sign of a break-in. Moreover, the few items they possessed that were worth stealing—their laptop, a few pieces of jewelry that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli—were left undisturbed.

Gina’s intruder hadn’t even stolen the cigar box, Mark had pointed out. This was an old Dutch Masters box that sat atop their bedroom dresser. They kept about a hundred dollars in emergency cash in the Dutch Masters box. Any self-respecting thief would have taken that, right?

But Gina had not been comforted by these appeals to hard evidence—or rather, the lack of hard evidence. 

Mark had hoped that her near obsession with the unsubstantiated intruder would go away in time. 

Her preoccupation seemed to be getting worse, instead. 

“Gina,” Mark began, “I really don’t think—”

And then Mark heard something, too.

Chapter 2

Table of contents

New crime novel project

Here’s a sneak peek at my new project: Venetian Springs

Two couples: one idealistic, one criminal.

A ruthless Mexican drug lord.

A gym bag filled with heroin and cash.

A casino in Indiana…called Venetian Springs.

For an advance view of rough draft chapters, subscribe to the blog, or check for updates  on the project’s main page….

‘Fright Night’: fun 80s horror

I’m presently rewatching the original Fright Night.

I saw this movie at the cinema in 1985, and I figured that after 34 years, I owed it another viewing. I enjoyed the movie the first time, after all. 

Fright Night is a fun movie. This isn’t cutting-edge horror. And unless you’re of an extremely sensitive bent, it won’t give you nightmares or keep you awake at night. 

I usually don’t like comedy-horror. The modern comedy-horror zombie movies are too often just gross, and/or in extremely bad taste. 

Fright Night, on the other hand, is clever, and the main characters are people you like, and want to see survive their horror movie ordeal.

(When I watched Woody Harrelson in Zombielandbig mistake on my part!–I found myself rooting for the zombies…Anything to shut up Harrelson’s annoying protagonist. But I digress.)

Fright Night has just enough horror to maintain the sense of dread, and just enough humor to keep things light. The opposing forces of horror and comedy are difficult to balance, but they’re balanced here. Almost perfectly.

Yes, I know that there is a 2011 Fright Night remake that stars Colin Farrell. I haven’t seen that one yet, but I’ve seen the previews, and it looks promising. I’ve added that one to my “to-watch” list. 

My new iPhone 11

I had been using an iPhone 6 Plus that I’d purchased in May 2015. I believe in getting my money’s worth, but hey, at a certain point, you’ve got to upgrade. 

My iPhone 6 had deteriorated to the point where it would no longer shut down, the silent toggle switch no longer worked, and various apps (including the text app) closed at random while I was using them.

Time to upgrade!

I bought a new iPhone 11 last week, and so far I’m very happy with it. 

I’m particularly impressed with the video camera. It may even inspire me to give YouTube another try.

As I wrote yesterday, the Apple Store has become a lousy customer experience. But Apple still makes great products.

What I’m reading: ‘Judgement’ by Joseph Finder

I love Joseph Finder’s corporate and legal conspiracy thrillers.

Some of you have asked me which authors I enjoy reading, which ones I look up to artistically.

Well, Joseph Finder is definitely on my A-list. His books have been a major influence behind several of my corporate conspiracy thrillers, including The Eavesdropper.

Finder doesn’t have quite the name recognition of a Clive Cussler or a David Baldacci, let alone James Patterson.

Finder’s books are categorized as thrillers, for bookstore shelving purposes, but what they really are is suspense.

That means fewer car chases and shootouts than you’ll find in something written by Patterson or Cussler. His books are highly entertaining, but they aren’t pure escapism. They are very lifelike. Patterson has said that he doesn’t do realism. Joseph Finder does do realism, and he does it quite well.

The typical Joseph Finder novel involves a lawyer or a corporate professional in an unusual situation, with lots of conflict and menace, but–I repeat–not the over-the-top action you’ll find in most thrillers.

Judgement is about a married female judge who is presiding over a sensitive, high-stakes case. One night while she’s out of town on business, she sleeps with a handsome stranger on a whim.

But that stranger is not who he appears to be. (Handsome and beautiful strangers in novels almost never are.)

***

Another thing about Finder’s books: They often involve intersections of crime, sex, and business.

Good stuff, all the way. I’m reading Judgement on my exercise bike each morning. Great entertainment for those 5:00 a.m. rides in the basement!

The Karate Kid (1984), and the perils of adults writing about teenagers

Some 80s movies age better than others…

 A New Jersey teenager named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moves to Southern California with his single mom. But Los Angeles isn’t the dreamland he’d been told it was. 

For one thing, California is full of bullies. And they all seem to know karate. 

Not all is dismal in California, however. Daniel meets a promising young California blonde, Ali (Elizabeth Shue). But one of the karate bullies just happens to be her very jealous ex-boyfriend. And he isn’t going to take no for an answer. 

Will Daniel walk away from the girl, or he will he resign himself to being beaten to a pulp every day?

But maybe there’s a third choice. Daniel is befriended by the mysterious Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the maintenance man of the rundown apartment building where he and his mother live. Mr. Miyagi might just be able to help him with that whole self-defense thing.

This is the setup for the first Karate Kid movie of 1984. The Karate Kid wasn’t the most wildly successful 1980s film franchise, but it did spawn three sequels and one remake, the most recent one in 2010.

This was one of those movies from my youth (I turned sixteen in 1984), that I never got around to watching when it was current. The Karate Kid was playing on cable the other day, so I decided to watch it, 35 years after everyone else in my peer group. 

There is a lot about this movie to love. Stories about mentorship and standing up to bullies have a timeless appeal, and for good reason.

This film also has some lessons about the importance of hard work and sticking to a process. Consider the scene in which Daniel thinks he’s beginning his karate lessons, but Mr. Miyagi tells him to wash and wax all those old cars. As we learn later in the film, there was a method behind Mr. Miyagi’s seeming madness.

No complaints with the acting. Pat Morita (1932-2005) was a perfect choice for the stern but compassionate mentor, Mr. Miyagi. The other members of the cast are at least adequate in their roles.

Certain elements of the script, however, seemed a bit dated…or maybe the standards of filmmaking have just changed too much. Or maybe I’ve aged to the point where I can no longer fully appreciate a movie made for a teen audience–even the teen audience that I was once a member of.

The character of Daniel comes across as flippant, and some of the actions he takes are just a bit too silly and self-destructive to be believed. Likewise, Ali’s sudden and dogged attachment to the new loser in school isn’t completely credible. 

In some of the scenes, I found myself saying: I don’t remember teens acting like this in the 1980s. This is an idealized version of how teens behaved and interacted in…the 1950s, maybe?

But then, it’s important to remember that John G. Avildsen, who directed The Karate Kid, was born in 1935.  Robert Mark Kamen, a Baby Boomer born in 1947, wrote the script. 

And herein lies the problem. If I were to make a movie about contemporary teenagers, my teens would all talk and behave like teenagers from the 1980s–because that’s what I know. (I’m about the same age today that John G. Avildsen was in 1984.)

Adults can never fully understand contemporary teenagers, perhaps; but adults are the ones who direct movies and write screenplays. I can only wonder what today’s teens think of the movies made for them and about them, by writers and directors of my generation. They no doubt shake their heads in irony, like I inadvertently did while watching some parts of The Karate Kid.

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

Rereading ‘Salem’s Lot’ after 35 years

The original hardcover, published in 1975

I recently decided to reread Stephen King’s vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. This seemed reasonable enough, as I had first read the book in 1984. (After thirty-five years, just about any novel or film will seem fresh again.)

I have a lot of nostalgia associated with this novel, as I tend to have a lot of nostalgia associated with a lot of things. This was the book that birthed my adult interest in reading and writing.

In February of 1984, I was a sophomore in high school. During my free period, I worked behind the counter of the school library. That’s right: I was a librarian.

But I wasn’t a big reader. Not at that time, at least. I had been a very avid reader during my childhood years, devouring series like John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

Once I hit puberty, though, I developed other interests: football and rock music, specifically.

I did play high school football for a while—if you can dignify what I did with that description. (I was a third-string right tackle, or something like that.) And I messed around with a few garage bands. I can still play the basic chords on a guitar. (But I was always much more interested in lyrics than in music.)

One day, when things were slow in the school library, I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot on a whim, and started reading it.

I was immediately hooked. I checked the book out, and read the entire thing in less than a week.

After that, I read the rest of Stephen King’s oeuvre, as it existed in 1984. Stephen King fans tend to divide themselves between those who prefer his newer style—long, rambling books like Duma Key and 11/22/63, and those who prefer the tightly plotted, shorter novels of his earlier years. Put me solidly in the latter camp. The Stephen King books I most love: The Stand, Pet Sematary, Christine, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, and ’Salem’s Lot were already available in 1984. (’Salem’s Lot, in fact, had already been out for a decade in 1984, and had already been adapted into a made-for-TV movie, starring David Soul as Ben Mears.)

 

There is much about ‘Salem’s Lot to love. Let’s start with the way Stephen King pulls you into the small-town New England setting. I have spent most of my life in Ohio, and I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Maine. But when I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I had a deep, palpable feeling of small-town Maine life in the mid-1970s, when the story takes place.

The horror element of the story builds slowly, and is an organic part of the setting. The horror is embedded in the history of the town, and Ben Mears’s terrifying childhood experience in the Marsten House. When the supernatural phenomena begin to occur, they are believable precisely because Stephen King has already made you believe in this world of ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town in rural Maine.

It starts with the very prosaic, quite mundane details, as seen through the eyes of Ben Mears. It begins as Mears, still haunted by the death of his wife, is driving into the town where he had spent a few happy summers of his childhood:

…and he could see Schoolyard Hill through the slash in the trees where the Central Maine Power pylons ran on a northwest to southeast line. The Griffen farm was still there, although the barn had been enlarged. He wondered if they still bottled and sold their own milk. The logo had been a smiling cow under the name brand: “Sunshine Milk from Griffen Farms!” He smiled. He had splashed a lot of that milk on his cornflakes at Aunt Cindy’s house.

That, you see, is how a master horror writer like Stephen King suspends your disbelief. He begins by investing you in the characters and the settings. Then he introduces the paranormal—the scary stuff.

 

The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot are old-school vampires. They are spiritually foul, evil creatures who pose a threat to your immortal soul. The best horror fiction involves the threat of death—either spiritual death or physical death. ‘Salem’s Lot involves both.

I will confess a love of the old-school vampires, done in the Bram Stoker mode. I moderately enjoyed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, but it was a lightweight vampire novel compared to ’Salem’s Lot. A virus-created vampire is not a proper vampire. A proper vampire must be a supernatural, reanimated being. It must recoil from crucifixes, and be burned by holy water. A vampire is not a scientific accident, or a misunderstood antihero (more on that abomination shortly).

 

Stephen King maintains a pretty tight pace throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Like I said, I read it the first time in less than a week; and I read it the second time at a similarly brisk pace.

Nevertheless, the book was originally published in 1975. Since then, much as changed. The reading public has become accustomed to 200+ channels on cable television, Jame Patterson-style minimalist thrillers, and…of course, the Internet, cell phones, and all the distractions of digital life. Attention spans are much short than they were in 1975, or even 1984.

I would like to declare that I haven’t been personally influenced by any of this, but I know better. As much as I admire Stephen King’s “world-building” in ‘Salem’s Lot, there were a few passages in which he spends a bit too many words going in-depth about the foibles and petty hypocrisies of small-town life.

Also, I was fifteen when I read the book for the first time. I was fifty when I reread it. In the intervening years, I have read many novels, and consumed countless television dramas, movies, etc. Perhaps my standards are more exacting than they were in 1984.

 

There is a feeling of pathos that the reader gets from ‘Salem’s Lot, and I believe that this is one of the book’s under-appreciated aspects. Much of the best horror fiction does leave us slightly sad and reflective. After reading a good horror novel, you should be like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “a sadder and a wiser man” (or woman).

Ben Mears comes to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to recover from an existential tragedy, the death of his wife, Miranda, in an accident. What he encounters there, however, is yet another tragedy—this one even more profound and disturbing.

On a personal level, he briefly finds love again, in his budding relationship with Susan Norton. But that (spoiler alert) is not to last. His loss of Susan, moreover, will be closely tied to the vampire outbreak, culminating in a scene that is reminiscent of a scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

I love ‘Salem’s Lot, as this post probably makes clear. My own personal attachment to the book aside, I sincerely believe that it is a great novel, and probably the best novel of the vampire genre yet written.

I despise what Stephanie Meyer and her many imitators have done to the vampire genre. The vampire should be dark and terrifying. Twilight—and the many Twilight knock-offs—have transformed the vampire into a teenage girl’s romantic fantasy. (Search for “vampire novel” on Amazon, and most of the results will be YA romance novels. Gag me.)

But we still have ‘Salem’s Lot. If you like the idea of a real vampire novel, then you should definitely read this one, if you haven’t done so already.

‘The Breakfast Club’: its strengths, and yes…its flaws

This was one of the big teen movies of my youth. I saw it when it came out in the mid-1980s. I recently watched it again as a middle age (51) adult.

 The basic idea of The Breakfast Club is immediately relatable: Five very different teens (a nerd, a jock, a princess, a basket case, a criminal) are thrown together in the enclosed space of their high school’s library. They are then forced to interact over the course of a day-long detention period on a Saturday. This is a small drama, but also a much larger one: The setup for the movie provides a concentrated and contained view of all teenage interactions.

Why we like The Breakfast Club

I liked The Breakfast Club, for all the usual reasons that millions of people have liked the movie since it first hit cinemas in February 1985. Everyone who has ever been a teenager can relate to feeling awkward and misunderstood; and The Breakfast Club has teenage angst in spades. The cast of characters is diverse enough that each of us can see parts of himself in at least one of these kids. 

The Breakfast Club is free of the gratuitous nudity that was somewhat common in the teensploitation films of the era. There is no Breakfast Club equivalent to Phoebe Cates’s topless walk beside the swimming pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (There is a brief glimpse of what is supposed to be Molly Ringwald’s panties. But since Ringwald was a minor at the time, an adult actress filled in as a double for this shot.)

Nor are any of the actors especially good-looking or flashy. They all look like normal people. No one paid to see this movie for its star power or sex appeal. The Breakfast Club succeeded on the basis of its script, and solid acting and production values. 

What I didn’t see in 1985

I enjoyed the movie the second time around, too. I have to admit, though, that teenage self-absorption can seem a little frustrating when viewed through adult eyes.

I’m the same age as Michael Anthony Hall and Molly Ringwald; we were all born in 1968. The other actors in the film are all within ten years of my age. Nevertheless, this time I was watching their teenage drama unfold as an older person–not a peer. Teenage drama is, by its very nature, trivial (and yes, a little annoying) when viewed from an adult perspective. 

The movie also makes all adults look corrupt, stupid, or craven–as opposed to the hapless and victimized, but essentially idealistic– teens. Every young character in The Breakfast Club blames his or her parents for their problems, and these assertions are never really challenged.

We get only a few shots of the parents, when the kids are being dropped off for their day of detention. The parents are all portrayed as simplistic naggers. 

The teens’ adult nemesis throughout the movie, Assistant Principal Vernon, is a caricature, a teenager’s skewed perception of the evil adult authority figure.  The school janitor, meanwhile,  is no working-class hero–but a sly operator who blackmails Vernon for $50.

A movie written for its audience

One of the reasons you liked this movie if you were a teenager in 1985 is that it flattered you–without challenging your myopic, teenage perspective of the world. If you weren’t happy, it was probably because of something your parents did, not anything that you did–or failed to do. 

That may have been a marketing decision. Who knows?  The Breakfast Club goes out of its way to flatter its target audience–the suburban teenager of the mid-1980s. I suppose I didn’t see that when I was a member of that demographic. I see it now, though. 

I’ve discovered Gary Vaynerchuk

Aka Gary Vee. Vaynerchuk, like Neil Patel and Pat Flynn, is one of those Internet marketing gurus. 

Gary Vee is profane, blunt, and extremely insightful. 

Unlike many marketing gurus, Gary Vee actually succeeded in a “normal” business before becoming Internet-famous.

In other words, he’s sold more than just his own advice. While still a teenager, Vaynerchuk leveraged the Internet to expand his parents’ wine business to a national level. 

Vaynerchuk was born in the USSR. He was only three when he and his parents emigrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

(Vaynerchuk is Jewish, so I assume this was at least partly a result of Jimmy Carter’s laudable efforts to convince the Kremlin to grant exit visas to long-persecuted Soviet Jews.)

I won’t attempt to encapsulate all his advice in a single blog post. Nor–I should note–do I have an affiliate relationship with him, or any relationship at all.

If you have a business and you’re interested in better leveraging the Internet and social media, he is work checking out, IMO. 

Rehire Marlon Anderson

The Madison Board of Education is staffed by idiots…

Marlon Anderson, an African American security guard at Madison West High School in Wisconsin, was recently fired for using the n-word.

But this isn’t what you think.

Last week an assistant principal at Madison West High summoned Anderson for help in escorting an unruly student from the school’s premises.

The student resisted, assaulting both the assistant principal and Anderson. In the course of the tantrum, he called Anderson the n-word multiple times.

Anderson didn’t want to take this, of course. Several times he told the student to stop. Then he finally said something like, “Don’t call me a nigger.”

Now, because Anderson–who is black–said “nigger”, he has been fired from his job.

A spokesperson from the Madison Board of Education explained, in a public statement, that this is due to the school’s “zero-tolerance” policy on racial slurs: “We are working to make our school climates the best they can be for all students and staff. We’ve taken a tough stance on racial slurs, and we believe that language has no place in schools.”

What a load of pointy-headed double-talk. This is a textbook case of bureaucratic stupidity, not to mention a grave injustice.

To be clear: The n-word isn’t acceptable speech, and I’m not in favor of using it casually. I hesitated before quoting it here.

But the word isn’t magic. And this has gotten more than a little silly.

Something is seriously awry when an African American security guard, under assault from a racist student, is fired for quoting the student’s epithet.

Talk about putting form over substance…

Why you should read Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift

I discovered Stephen King in 1984, when I serendipitously picked up a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in my high school’s library.

I was immediately hooked. I set out to read everything King had published to that time–which was considerable, even in 1984.

My initial instinct was to focus on King’s novels. I read The Dead Zone and Cujo, The Shining, and (of course) The Stand.

Oh, yes, and Carrie. I liked Carrie a lot.

I was methodically working my way through the King oeuvre. I mostly did this by going through the books on the library shelves. (There was no Wikipedia, no Internet, in 1984, you’ll remember.) After I’d read all of the Stephen King novels I could find, I came across this other book: Night Shift.

Night Shift, I immediately discovered, was not another novel, but a collection of short stories.

I was a bit skeptical–as much as I already loved Stephen King. My experience with short stories thus far had been limited to assigned readings in my high school English class.

I had a teacher that year who was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He particularly loved “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. This is a story in which an old man has a drink in a cafe, and two waiters talk about him. Another Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, consists of an oblique conversation about how an unmarried couple will handle an unwanted pregnancy.

Hemingway’s short stories bored me to tears. I couldn’t relate to the old man in the cafe in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. I was fifteen, after all. And at that age I hadn’t even had sex for the first time yet, so the roundabout conversation between the man and the woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” left me cold, too.

I’m a bit older now, and I’ve acquired some appreciation for the short stories of Hemingway. (Hemingway really isn’t the best choice for younger readers.) But at that time, my readings of literary short fiction had convinced me that short stories were little more than pretentious vignettes in which nothing much happens.

Nevertheless, I took a chance on Night Shift. I was glad I did.

Night Shift was–and still is–filled with short stories that grab you from the get-go. Stephen King’s forte, I had already discovered, was to transform the ordinary into something dark and magical. The stories in Night Shift accomplished this just as adroitly as King’s novels.

Take, for example, the story “I Know What You Need”. This is a story about a popular young woman named Elizabeth Rogan, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a social misfit named Ed Hamner, Jr. As the title implies, Ed always seems to know what Elizabeth needs.

 




 

But there is a dark secret behind Ed Hamner’s intuition. What is it? I’m certainly not going to ruin “I Know What You Need” by telling you here.

The events in “I Know What You Need” take a supernatural turn, but the initial setup is something that everyone can relate to. You meet a stranger who simultaneously attracts you and arouses your suspicion. Who hasn’t been in that situation?

And then there is “Quitters, Inc.” This tale concerns an agency that uses highly unusual methods to help people stop smoking. There are no ghosts in this one; but King does present a unique spin on bad habits…and how difficult it is for us to give them up.

“Quitters, Inc.”, just like “I Know What You Need”, is immediately accessible. Everyone has struggled with a bad habit of some kind. That might not be smoking, in your case: Maybe it’s gambling, or overspending, or overeating, or watching Internet porn. Unless you’re a very unusual person, you have at least one bad habit. What would it take to get you to quit yours?

One of the best stories in this book is “Jerusalem’s Lot”, which is written in the same fictional universe as King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. Like the novel of a similar name, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has vampires. But these aren’t sissified, teenage girl heartthrob vampires, like you’ll find in Stephanie Meyer’s crime against vampire fiction, Twilight. These are real vampires: dark, evil, and very, very scary.

Some of the stories in Night Shift have been made into movies. I am here to tell you that the movies haven’t been nearly as good as Stephen King’s stories.

To cite just one example: Maximum Overdrive, which hit the theaters in 1986. The only good thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive was the AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”. The film adaptation of “Sometimes They Come Back”, made in 1991, is a little better. But not by much.

Read the stories. Ignore the Hollywood cash-grab film versions.

All of these stories involve matters of life and death (as all great fiction does); but not all of them contain elements of the macabre or the highly unusual. Two stories in particular, “The Woman in the Room”, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” are stories that “could happen” without violating any of the rules of what we call “the real world”. Nevertheless, these stories involve real elements of suspense; and they both conclude with an emotional gut-punch.

 




 

I am a longtime Stephen King fan, but I am not an uncritical one. I haven’t hesitated to pan some of his clunkers. Cell, Lisey’s Story, and that horrid doorstop, Under the Dome, stand out among Stephen King’s turkeys. (Hey, the guy has been professionally writing since Richard Nixon was president; not all of his stuff can be brilliant.)

Even King himself admits that The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher leave much to be desired. I personally prefer the “old”(pre-1986, pre-It) Stephen King books to the newer ones. The Outsider (2018) has been on my bedside reading table for months now. The Outsider is a book worth reading, but not one that keeps me compulsively turning the pages.

But Night Shift is that good. These stories were all written when Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer, before he had become a “brand”. King wrote most of them for publication in men’s magazines. To put the matter crudely, these stories had to vie for male attention with photos of nude and scantily clad young women. They therefore had to hook readers from the very first paragraph.

And since they were originally written for magazine publication, not a word could be wasted. Every story in Night Shift is taut and economically written. There is no hint in Night Shift of the bloated literary style that would eventually emerge in the 850-page, indulgently overwritten 11/23/63.

I envy you, in a way, if you are new to Night Shift. I have read these stories so many times, that I now take the events in them for granted. I will always admire these tales, but I can no longer read them with virgin eyes.

But perhaps you can. If you haven’t read Night Shift, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

The Consultant: Chapter 10

The guard grabbed Barry by his shirt collar. The other big Korean—the one whom Jung-Ho had identified as Sgt. Park—squeezed into the cell to help manhandle Barry.

They picked him up. Sgt. Park slammed a fist into Barry’s abdomen. Barry would have vomited, if there had been anything in his stomach. 

The guard slipped a little plastic tie around Barry’s wrists.

Jung-Ho shouted something else in Korean. Then Sgt. Park and the unnamed guard pushed Barry out of the cell. 

“Stop!” Barry shouted. “I want to speak to the Swedish embassy!”

No one answered him.

Now he found himself in a long corridor with stone walls. The kind of decor one would expect in the hallway of a prison in North Korea. 

The corridor was almost completely dark. There were bare bulbs spaced at wide intervals in the ceiling. But as was the case in the cell—they didn’t give off much light. 

Barry was jostled around a corner, where he saw a wedge of daylight just ahead of him. A few steps further, and he saw an open doorway, lit up with the obscured sunlight of a cloudy day.

Sgt. Park and the guard kept shoving Barry forward, while Jung-Ho walked calmly alongside them.

Barry shouted more protests. But Jung-Ho would give him no response, and the other two Koreans didn’t even understand him. 

Another shove, and he was outside, in a muddy courtyard enclosed by brick walls.

The courtyard was barren, but not empty. There were two groups of people out here.

One group was wearing rags. They looked like prisoners in a concentration camp, which—Barry supposed—was exactly what they were.

The other group was wearing military uniforms. They had guns. 

Something, Barry could tell, was about to take place in this courtyard—something very bad.

And he was going to be a part of it.

Perhaps twelve or fifteen prisoners—all of them Korean, apparently—were lined up against a wall. Four more Korean guards were watching them with scowling faces. 

Three of the guards carried AK-47s. The fourth guard, who might have been an officer, carried a pistol like the one that had been used to threaten Barry.

The prisoners were a mix of age and gender. The youngest of them was a woman who appeared to be in her twenties. The oldest was a man who looked old enough to be a great grandfather.

Sgt. Park and the guard who had helped jostle Barry outside now shoved him to the nearer end of the line, and against the wall.  

Barry had some idea what was going to happen here. He shouted, “Wait!” and tried to resist. The big Korean, Sgt. Park, smacked Barry with his open palm. 

It was only a glancing blow across Barry’s head. But after being struck by the truncheon in a similar manner, his head was already ringing. He also now realized that he was famished and dehydrated…Not to mention the shock of waking up from a drug-induced slumber in North Korea. 

And now this: His captors were pushing him toward what looked like preparations for a mass execution. Toward the target line.

Stunned, Barry had little choice but to let himself be pushed. He looked down, and saw one of his two hundred-dollar loafers sink briefly into the muck of the courtyard. 

This couldn’t be real.

But it was real, impossible though it seemed.

They shoved him again. 

Sgt. Park and his helper finally pushed Barry into the place where they wanted him. Barry turned around and saw a crumbling brick wall that was punctured with bullet holes. There were also dark stains that could only have been dried blood.

The smell out here was wretched. A mixture of the oozy mud beneath their feet, and the reek of the prisoners’ unwashed bodies.

His own unwashed body. 

Barry glanced over and saw Jung-Ho, waiting and watching impassively. Jung-Ho was at the very edge of the courtyard. He had not stepped out into the mud. 

Opposite the wall, Barry could see the four Korean guards talking among themselves. The sky was a white-grey, the air warm and fetid. From a flagpole in the center of the courtyard hung a North Korean flag. 

Barry could hear some of the prisoners beside him begin to whimper and sob as the guard with the pistol approached the line. 

The guard with the pistol now stood at the end of the line farthest from Barry. 

Barry looked around: There was nowhere to run. In every direction, was a brick wall, a North Korean with a gun, or both.

Barry had a sudden realization: He would be dead within a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

The guard with the pistol shouted something in Korean. Barry watched in disbelief as he placed the muzzle of the pistol against the head of the first prisoner—a middle-aged woman.

There was a loud crack, and Barry saw the pistol buck in the guard’s outstretched hand. 

The female prisoner fell to the ground. A section of her head was missing. Her blood was gushing out onto the mud. 

A few seconds ago she had been alive. Alive in this hellhole, yes—but alive. 

And now she was dead. 

Just like that.  

Before Barry had even absorbed this horror, the guard with the pistol moved on to the next prisoner: the great grandfather.

The old man looked stoically ahead, not looking at the officer.

The guard held out the gun and the gun went BOOM! again. 

The top of the old man’s head seemed to have been sheared off. He toppled forward into the mud. 

The next prisoner was a youngish woman. Under different circumstances, she would have been pretty. But now she was crying, babbling hysterically in Korean. A line of mucus ran down from one nostril. 

She fell to her knees. Barry couldn’t understand her words, of course, but he understood their import well enough: She was still very young, and she was begging for her life.

The gun went off yet again. 

The top of the woman’s head collapsed inward, in an explosion of blood, and her body fell forward. 

Now there were three dead bodies, their heads ruined by that terrible weapon that the guard wielded with such cold efficiency.

Life and death means nothing to these people, Barry thought. 

They’re going to kill me.

They aren’t kidding around. 

It’s really going to happen.

Unless…

Barry hated himself for what he had just decided to do, but he was still determined to go through with it.

The guard with the pistol probably didn’t speak a word of English. Moreover, he was obviously not in a listening mood. He was in a shooting and killing mood.

Barry looked in the other direction. He saw Jung-Ho, still standing at the edge of the courtyard, the massive Sgt. Park at his side. 

Barry broke out of the line and ran in the direction of Jung-Ho.  

What was the worst that could happen? They would shoot him?

Jung-Ho watched him approach, but he did not react.

A short distance from the edge of the courtyard, Barry tripped and fell in the mud. With his hands bound, he had no way to break the fall. He struggled to his knees, aware that the front of his body was entirely caked with mud. 

“Okay!” he pleaded. “You win! You want me to perform a task for you? Serve your Supreme Leader? I’ll do it!

Even as Barry spoke these words, he loathed himself anew for his desperation, this voluntary surrender of his dignity.

Without looking directly at Barry, Jung-Ho said something in Korean.

Sgt. Park stepped forward, into the muddy courtyard, and lifted Barry off the ground. The big Korean yelled something incomprehensible at him. 

“I—I don’t understand,” Barry said, as he struggled to his feet.

Sgt. Park punched Barry in the stomach. He doubled over, and fell back into the mud.  

Barry heard Jung-Ho say something else in Korean. Sgt. Park lifted him up again—but this time he spared him the punch. 

It didn’t matter. Barry’s stomach felt like it had been struck by a cannonball. But that pain was minor, compared to his terror of that guard with the pistol— the one who liked to shoot unarmed prisoners in the head. 

Jung-Ho looked past Barry, and summoned another guard. Barry turned and saw the guard running, double-time, in their direction. He was a young guy, looked like a new enlistee. 

Barry heard the pistol crack again. More cries of anguish. Behind him the killing continued.

What is wrong with these people? Barry thought. But he knew that he had other, more immediate problems of his own.

The young guard stood at attention before Jung-Ho, as Jung-Ho issued a set of instructions in staccato Korean.

“You will go with this guard and Sgt. Park,” said Jung-Ho in English, his words obviously intended for Barry.

“What?” Barry said. “Where are they taking me?”

Then a new prospect occurred to Barry: Maybe the North Koreans had an even more horrific means of killing him in mind—something worse than being shot in the head with a pistol.

Perhaps this nightmare was about to get even worse—if that were even possible.

Barry had a dreadful feeling that it was possible.

Jung-Ho walked away without answering him.

 

End of excerpt

Get The Consultant at Amazon!

 

Table of contents

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

The Apple Store business model is broken

Here’s what’s wrong…and how Apple can fix it.

This past week I took my 73 year-old father to the Apple Store in the Cincinnati area with the intent of purchasing at least one (and probably two) items. My dad was in the market for a new iPhone and a new laptop. 

We arrived twenty minutes before the store opened. A young Apple Store associate entered our information in a tablet before the store opened. (Like the government in Logan’s Run, Apple Stores seem to eliminate every member of their band over the age of thirty. I have never been waited on there by anyone much beyond that age.) 

Great! I thought. This is going to be fast! Whiz-bang efficiency!

But I was wrong. It wasn’t fast. 

To make a long story short, we spent 90 minutes waiting around the store. We stood. We paced. We looked at the few items that you can view without the help of a sales associate. (And there aren’t many of those.)

And then, finally, we gave up. We left without buying anything. At the time of our departure, we were told that we would be waited on in…about twenty minutes.

That was probably an optimistic assessment. I think it would have been more like an hour: There were around two dozen other customers waiting around for service, just like us. 

I saw several of them walk out in frustration, too.

Apple: great products, sucky retailing

I am a ten-year member of the Cult of Mac. 

I personally haven’t used anything but Apple products since 2010, when a final malware infection of my Dell PC, loaded with Windows XP, convinced me that enough was enough.  

So I bought an iMac. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I’ve owned two iMacs, two MacBooks, four iPods, and three iPhones. 

I’ve become an evangelist for Apple products. I’ve converted not only both my parents, but at least two or three of my friends. 

Apple products really are something special. But boy, those Apple Stores sure do suck.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Widespread complaints

A May 2019 article in the LA Times is entitled, “How the Apple Store has fallen from grace”. Focusing on an Apple Store in Columbus, Ohio, the article could have been written about my recent visit to the Apple Store in Cincinnati: 

Web Smith’s recent experience at his local Apple store in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, has been an exercise in frustration.

There was the time he visited the Easton Town Center location to buy a laptop for his 11-year-old daughter and spent almost 20 minutes getting an employee to accept his credit card. In January, Smith was buying a monitor and kept asking store workers to check him out, but they couldn’t because they were Apple “Geniuses” handling tech support and not sales.

“It took me forever to get someone to sell me the product,” said Smith, who runs 2PM Inc., an e-commerce research and consulting firm. “It’s become harder to buy something, even when the place isn’t busy. Buying a product there used to be a revered thing. Now you don’t want to bother with the inconvenience.”

There are many similar stories in the media of late, as well as customer complaints on social media. 

Cult of Mac members still largely love their iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, iPods, and Apple Watches. But they increasingly dread the next trip to the Apple Store.

So what went wrong? And what needs to be done? 

An obsolete concept of the pre-iPhone era

The first Apple Stores debuted in May 2001—going on twenty years ago. Back then, they showcased only the computers, which had a minuscule small market share at the time, compared to PCs made by Dell and Gateway. 

iPods were added in October 2001, but these, too, were specialty products when they debuted. For geeks only. 

The real tipping point was the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and the subsequent ubiquity of smartphones. 

In 2001, a relatively small percentage of the population owned an iMac or a MacBook. In 2019, 40% of us own iPhones. The iPhone is a mass-market product. But it’s still being retailed as if it were a specialty item.

And when you visit an Apple Store in 2019, you’ll find that 70% of the traffic to these upscale boutiques is iPhone-related. Many are there for routine password resets. 

This is traffic that was never imagined or accounted for in 2001, when the Apple Store concept was launched.

Zen over function

Apple Stores don’t look like ordinary electronics retails stores. Steve Jobs was a devotee of eastern Zen practices, and the Apple Store resembles a Japanese bonsai garden. There is an emphasis on minimalism, and lots of blank space. 

The downside of that is that you can’t do much to serve yourself, as you could in a Best Buy or a Walmart. 

You basically walk into the store, and an employee puts you into an electronic queue. Then you wait around. 

But you have a very clean, zen setting in which to wait. 

Uncomfortable stores

Speaking of those long waits….

Apple Stores do look nice. But they are not comfortable places to spend an hour waiting for a salesperson. Which is almost inevitable. 

There are few stools, and it’s clear that the stools were selected for their  sleekness, not their comfort. 

There aren’t any plush bean bags or sofas to sit on. Heavens no! That would detract from the zen.

Inefficient use of staff

Too many Apple Store employees are exclusively dedicated to crowd control—to herding you into virtual line. 

This is because you can’t serve yourself in an Apple Store. Go into a Best Buy, and there are clearly defined areas for looking at computers, at cell phones, at peripherals. There’s a line for service in every Best Buy. A line for returns. 

Normal retail, in other words. 

There are no clearly defined areas within the Apple Store. Customers are all milling about, most of them doing nothing but waiting to be attended on. 

Many of these customers are frustrated and growing impatient. They want to know how much longer they’ll have to wait. This means that at any given moment, at least a quarter of the Apple Store employees you see on the floor are directing this vast cattle drive. 

They aren’t selling any products, they aren’t helping any customers. They’re just managing the virtual line. 

That amounts to a big waste of the Apple Store’s manpower—and of the customers’ time.

Decline of staff quality

Apple stores were once staffed by highly knowledgeable sales personnel. That was in the days when the stores only carried computers, and hiring was very selective.

Those days are gone. Now that it’s all about selling a gazillion iPhones, Apple Store employees are no longer specialists. Despite the pretentious name “Genius Bar”, geniuses are in short supply on the sales floor nowadays. You’re going to be served by run-of-the-mill retail sales staff. And their expertise, helpfulness, and attitudes vary greatly.

Not enough stores

There are about a dozen AT&T stores within a twenty-minute drive of my house in suburban Cincinnati.

Guess how many Apple Store there are…

One. In the Cincinnati area, we are served by a single Apple Store at the Kenwood Towne Centre.

And for those readers in Los Angeles and New York, who maybe think that Cincinnati is a one-horse cow town: There are 2.1 million people in the Greater Cincinnati area. It’s the 29th largest metropolitan area in the United States. 

And we have one Apple Store.

There are only eight Apple Stores in all of Ohio, and a total population of 11 million. That means one Apple Store for every 1,375,000 Ohioans. 

But it could be worse: There are only three Apple Stores in the entire state of Wisconsin. Kentucky has only one Apple Store.

But there are only twenty-two Apple Stores in the entire State of New York. AT&T has more retail locations than that just in Cincinnati. 

No wonder the stores are packed. I made my aforementioned trip to the Kenwood Towne Center Apple Store with my dad on a Friday. Granted, Friday is typically a busier retail day than Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. But this was during the middle of October—not exactly a peak shopping season. The back-to-school rush is already over. The Christmas shopping blitz won’t begin for another six weeks. 

And at 9:40 in the morning—twenty minutes before opening time—there was already a crowd outside the Apple Store.

The Apple Store needs to be refocused on function rather than branding

As an Apple employee quoted by the LA Times notes, Apple Stores are “mostly an exercise in branding and no longer do a good job serving mission shoppers”.

The “mission shopper” is the shopper who goes into the store with a specific purchase in mind (versus someone who is still torn between a Mac and a PC, or an iPhone and an Android). 

These are customers who could largely serve themselves. If only that were possible. But due to the philosophy of the Apple Store, there is minimal “clutter” at these boutique shops. In other words, these are retail shops with minimal merchandise on display. 

Apple Stores need to become more like Best Buys: There should be clearly defined areas for looking at each category of merchandise, and clearly defined areas to wait for technical support. 

As I mentioned above, most of the traffic in the Apple Store seems to involve iPhone support. The iPhone customers definitely need their own area of the store. 

This probably means abandoning the whole boutique concept. At present, Apple Stores are small but mostly empty spaces in high-rent locations. That is, again, all very zen and cool-looking. But it doesn’t happen  to be a great way to purchase a new MacBook, or to get your iPhone unlocked when you’ve forgotten the passcode.

A broken model in terminal need of repair

 The Apple Store might have been a workable retail model in the pre-iPhone era, when Mac devotees really were an exclusive tribe. The Apple geeks of 2001, with their tattoos and soul patches, may have appreciated the gleaming but empty Apple Stores. 

But the Apple customer base has changed and expanded since 2001. When you factor in iPhones, Apple is now a mass-market brand. (And Apple now owns 13% of the home computer market.)

 Having become a mass-market brand, Apple needs to adopt the more efficient practices of a mass-market brand. 

That means dropping the boutique pretentiousness that makes Apple Stores great places to photograph, but horrible places to buy stuff. The hoi polloi of 2019 are not the rarified Apple geeks of 2001. 

We don’t want or need a zen experience. We just want to get quickly in and out of the Apple Store with minimal delays, like we can at every other retail shop.

The Grudge (2004)

I rewatched this one tonight. (I saw it for the first time circa 2005, shortly after the movie was released.)

The Grudge brings together two of my longtime interests: Japan and horror films.

This is a fun movie. Not anything that is going to leave you pondering the world in a new way for days, or awake for many nights with the lights on. The Grudge relies on atmospherics, jump scares, and classic Japanese ghost story tropes. The characters are the  stock  types you expect in a movie of this kind.

That said, there are a few genuinely creepy moments. If you wake up at night and suspect that there is something under the covers with you in your bed, you’re officially advised not to look. What you see may be more than you can handle.

View The Grudge on Amazon

My top three recurring dreams

I have a tendency to dream, almost every night. I don’t want to get all woo-woo on you (or well, maybe I do), but I regard dreams as a gateway into…something. And by that I mean more than just my subconscious. 

I certainly have dreams that I would rather not share. But within the range of what is shareable and family-friendly, these are the recurring dreams that I tend to have the most often:

1. The exam dream: I show up to a class on exam day. Oops! I forgot that I was taking the class. I haven’t been there all semester! But today is exam day! I’m screwed!

2. The chased by criminals dream: At least once per month, I dream that I’m being chased by a criminal gang. Sometimes they’re common hoodlums, sometimes they’re mafiosos. But they’re always in pursuit of me, for some undefined reason. 

3. I’m driving on an expressway and I can’t get off. This might be attributable to the fact that driving has never been one of my favorite activities.   I also get this dream multiple times per month. I’ll be behind the wheel of a car, on a narrow expressway. I’ve missed my exit, and there’s no way for me to get off the highway. 

The exam dream, in particular, seems to be common. (There are a number of articles about it on the Internet.) The other two…I’m not sure about.

Starvation wages and the CEO

A follow-up to my recent post about CEO pay: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has received a 66% raise. He’ll now be making $84 million per year.

I’m a capitalist. I believe in the free market. But you don’t have to be Bernie Sanders to agree that this current generation of corporate CEOs is taking greed to new levels.

They are also endangering the American way of life in the process, as they give ammunition to radical leftists on the fringes of the Democratic Party.

Southern Ohio’s Dead Man’s Curve

Not far from where I live, there is a stretch of Ohio State Route 125 that has been dubbed Dead Man’s Curve

The spot is just a few miles from my house, in fact. I’ve been by there many times.

According to the urban legend, if you drive this section of rural highway a little after 1 a.m., you might see the faceless hitchhiker. From a distance, this male figure may look relatively normal. Once you get close, though, you’ll see that he has no face.

Sometimes the hitchhiker isn’t content to stand there by the side of the road and watch you. There have been reports of the phantom actually attacking cars.

Creepy, right?

Yeah, I think so, too….

Dead Man’s Curve on Ohio State Route 125 has a long and macabre history. Route 125 is the main road that connects the suburbs and small towns east of Cincinnati with the city. But much of the road (including Dead Man’s Curve) was originally part of the Ohio Turnpike, which was built in 1831. (Andrew Jackson was president in 1831, just to put that date in perspective.)

That section of the Ohio Turnpike was the scene of many accidents (some of them fatal), even in the horse-and-buggy days. The downward sloping curve became particularly treacherous when rain turned the road to mud. Horses and carriages would sometimes loose their footing, sending them over the adjacent hillside.

In the twentieth century, the Ohio Turnpike was paved and reconfigured into State Route 125. In 1968 the road was expanded into four lanes. 

As part of the expansion, the spot known as Dead Man’s Curve was leveled and straightened. (As a result, the curve doesn’t look so daunting today…unless you know its history.) This was supposed to be the end of “Dead Man’s Curve”.

But it wasn’t.

In 1969, there was a horrible accident at the spot. The driver of a green Roadrunner—traveling at a speed of 100 mph—slammed into an Impala carrying five teenagers. There was only one survivor of the tragic accident.

Shortly after that, witnesses began to report sightings of the faceless hitchhiker during the wee hours. (The hitchhiker is said to be most active during the twenty-minutes between 1:20 and 1:40 a.m.) There have also been reports of a ghostly green Roadrunner that will chase drivers late at night. 

Oh, and Dead Man’s Curve remains deadly, despite the leveling and straightening done in 1968. In the five decades since the accident involving the Roadrunner and the Impala, around seventy people have been killed there.

Is there any truth to the legend of Dead Man’s Curve?

I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is that I’ve heard many eyewitness accounts from local residents who claim to have seen the hitchhiker. (Keep in mind, I live very close to Dead Man’s Curve, and it’s a local topic of discussion and speculation.) Almost none of these eyewitnesses have struck me as mentally imbalanced or deceitful.

I know what your last question is going to be: Have I ever driven Dead Man’s Curve between 1:20 and 1:40 a.m. myself?

Uh, no. But perhaps I’ll get around to it someday, and I’ll let you know in a subsequent blog post!

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Hey!…While you’re here: I wrote a novel about a haunted road in Ohio. It’s called Eleven Miles of Night. You can start reading the book for FREE here on my website, or check out the reviews on Amazon.

You can also start reading my other two novels of the supernatural in Southern Ohio: Revolutionary Ghosts and 12 Hours of Halloween. 

Check out my FREE short stories, too….many of them have macabre elements.

And stop back soon! I add content to this website every day!

The Confucius Institute in the era of Xi Jinping

I’m a tireless advocate of foreign language study. (I listen to the news in at least three languages daily–usually English, Japanese, and Spanish.) 

Mandarin is one of the most important languages for Americans to learn, along with Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and several others–for obvious reasons.

There has long been a dearth of trained Mandarin instructors in the US. American foreign language instruction has traditionally been tilted toward Western European languages (French, Spanish, German). 

The Confucius Institute is an arm of the Chinese government that promotes the study of Mandarin outside China’s borders. 

There is nothing inherently sinister about this. Other countries, including the United States, Japan, and Germany, have similar programs.

But where the Beijing government is concerned–especially in the age of Xi Jinping–Mandarin instruction often comes with a heavy dose of political propaganda, as Andreas Fulda describes in Foreign Policy Magazine

Confucius Institutes have been critiqued for repeatedly straying from their publicly declared key task of providing Mandarin Chinese language training and for venturing into deep ideological territory. There is mounting evidence that the institutes’ learning materials distort contemporary Chinese history and omit party-induced humanitarian catastrophes such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) entirely. At Confucius Institute events, politically sensitive issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen cannot be publicly discussed either. In 2014, a conference in Braga, Portugal, that involved both the Confucius Institute headquarters and the Taiwan-based Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange as co-sponsors was unceremoniously interrupted by Confucius Institute headquarters chief Xu Lin. And under the conditions of the Seven Don’t Speak directive, mainland Chinese education workers are barred from talking about universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, the historical errors of the CCP, official bourgeoisie, and judicial independence—even when overseas.

Chinese Propaganda Has No Place on Campus

By all means, study Mandarin. But as I’ve pointed out before: Americans have been waiting for China to become a “normal”, open, democratic country for at least 30 years now. The wait continues. 

Jennifer Aniston, Instagram, celebrity obsessions

The heyday of Friends…in 1995

CNN breathlessly tells us that Jennifer Aniston’s debut on Instagram temporarily “broke” the platform, because so many people were intent on following her.

Are Americans really that celebrity- and social media-obsessed nowadays?

I have nothing against Jennifer Aniston, mind you (not that she would care, I know)… I used to watch Friends all the time…in like, 1998. I also enjoyed Aniston’s performances in Office Space (1999) and Derailed (2005).

Jennifer Aniston is a fine actress, and minimally annoying as Hollywood types go. But her signature venue, Friends, went off the air 15 years ago.

15 years ago. 

Aniston is basically an actress of the 1990s and the 2000s.

Nothing wrong with that! Aniston has a net worth of $240 million. She doesn’t need to prove anything at this point, and heaven knows she doesn’t need the money.

But why do so many people feel a compulsion to follow her on Instagram in 2019? What’s the secret sauce here? What’s the objective? I don’t get it.

If following celebrities whose careers peaked nearly twenty years ago is the big thing on Instagram, then I’ll take this as further proof that I’m not missing out on much by ignoring the  social media platform.