Ayn Rand and me

I had a brief flirtation with Ayn Rand the year I turned twenty. The most torrid part of the relationship lasted only about as long as some of Dagny Taggart’s warm-up love affairs in Atlas Shrugged. Officially, I broke off the romance; but it remains a memorable phase in my formative years.

Twenty is probably the perfect age to have a fling with Ayn Rand. In the enclosed terrarium of your teenage years, it is easy to hold any hifalutin concept of yourself that you can imagine. When you are twenty, though, things begin to change. The adult world looms large in the windshield. You realize that you aren’t quite as special, quite as brilliant, or quite as destined for spectacular success as you fancied yourself to be, only a few short years ago.

Ayn Rand, with hyper-individualist titles like Anthem and The Virtue of Selfishness, is the perfect salve for the twenty-year-old who suddenly fears that he might turn out to be quite ordinary, after all. The twenty-year-old’s brief burst of Ayn Randian egoism is a final cry of rebellion for the self-important teenager that is slipping away.

I first heard of Ayn Rand around 1983, when I was in high school. My favorite rock band was Rush. Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer and main lyricist, wrote at least two songs based on Rand’s novels and philosophical tracts. Continue reading “Ayn Rand and me”

What kind of horror do I write?

This is a question I received the other day on Twitter.  It isn’t a frivolous question, I suppose. About a third of my titles are classified as horror, after all.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what kind of horror I don’t write.

I don’t do excessive gore/violence.

I have never been interested in horror fiction that fetishizes violence and cruelty for the mere sake of wallowing in such things. (If that’s your goal, then why not just watch one of those ISIS beheading videos?)

This means that graphic depictions of torture (for example) don’t appear in my books. Cannibalism is pretty much out, too. (Gross.)

I’m old enough to remember the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991. Suffice it to say that I am not interested in exploring the most extreme possibilities of human depravity in fiction. Again, what’s the point?

Are you into “splatterpunk”? You probably won’t like my books. Do us both a favor, and read something else.

I don’t like horror tales with unlikable characters.

Likewise, I don’t care for horror stories that simply involve horrible things happening to horrible people.

You’ve certainly seen horror movies that involve the following scenario (or something like it): A group of obnoxious, unlikable people enter a house, and they’re killed off one by one.

But the thing is…you don’t care! The protagonists were all awful people, anyway. (Maybe you were even rooting for the monster.)

I don’t do comedy-horror.

Do you like the Zombieland movies? My horror fiction probably isn’t for you.

I love comedy films—Airplane, Blazing Saddles, etc. Cheers from the 1980s can still make me laugh.

But horror is serious business. There can be moments of levity amid the darkness. There are many of these in some of Stephen King’s novels. (Cujo and The Stand stand out in this regard.) But when the monsters come out, it’s all business. Monsters are serious.

***

So what kind of horror do I write, then?

My influences are Stephen King, Peter Straub, and the campfire ghost stories of my youth.

I have always been fascinated by urban legends. I am endlessly interested in the dark house at the end of the lane, the one that all the kids say is haunted.

A good horror story should involve characters that you care about. If you don’t care about the characters, then you won’t care if the monster gets them. 

A good horror story should involve redemption. The evil is defeated in the end. Or some crucial lesson is learned. Or the human condition is in some way illuminated.

Redemption is a key element of most of the horror stories that we love best. The salvation of Mina Harker at the end of Dracula. The closing scene of The Stand, in which Frannie Goldsmith and Stu Redman wonder aloud if people ever really learn from their mistakes. The last scene in The Dead Zone, in which the shade of Johnny Smith assures Sarah that nothing is ever really lost, nothing that can’t be found.

Note that redemption doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. But there has to have been a point to it all.

***

I like ghosts, monsters, things that go bump in the dark. My sainted grandmother was a direct descendant of immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. And every Irishman (even a diluted, generations-removed Irishman like me) loves a good ghost tale.

Let me give you some examples. Here are a few of my horror novels, to date:

Eleven Miles of Night

A college filmmaker takes a walk down a notoriously haunted road, in order earn a $2,000 fee for documenting the phenomena he sees.

This novel contains ghosts, demonic beings, and a long-dead witch who inhabits a covered bridge. Oh, yeah—and hellhounds!

View Eleven Miles of Night on Amazon

12 Hours of Halloween

On Halloween night, 1980, three adolescent friends go out for “one last Halloween”. But they have been cursed by an entity known as “the ghost boy”. As a result, their familiar neighborhood is transformed into a supernatural landscape filled with vampires, wayward spirits, and trees with minds of their own.

View 12 Hours of Halloween on Amazon.

Revolutionary Ghosts

In the summer of 1976, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner discovers that the Headless Horseman has returned to terrorize twentieth-century America. The Horseman has brought other ghosts back with him, including the once beautiful (but now hideous) Marie Trumbull, an executed Loyalist.

View Revolutionary Ghosts on Amazon

I have others; but these are the three you might check out first. They are usually enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which means you can read them for free if you subscribe to that service.

‘The Stand’: rereading update

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently started rereading The Stand, Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu” or “Captain Trips”. 

I also mentioned that I read the book for the first time back in the mid-1980s, when I was a high school student. (I believe I read it in the fall of my junior year, which would have been October~November 1984, more or less.) Continue reading “‘The Stand’: rereading update”

‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching

As I’ve written here before, I am a long-time fan of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch LAPD detective series. I’ve been reading the novels since 2004, more or less.

Since last month, I’ve been binge-watching Bosch on Amazon Prime Video, starting from season 1.

I’m now most of the way through Season 4. I’m still enjoying this original series immensely. Very, very good stuff.  

***

Season 4 is based on the Bosch novels Nine Dragons and Angels Flight

Or should I say, “inspired by” these two novels? Continue reading “‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching”

Rereading ‘Watership Down’

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel, Watership Down.

This is my third exposure to the story. I watched the animated version when I was a kid, back in the 1970s. Then, the summer after high school (1986), I read the book. This time around, I’m consuming it in bits and pieces, mostly listening as I perform other tasks. (Today I listened to about three hours of the book, while I cut two lawns.) Continue reading “Rereading ‘Watership Down’”

‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ (what I’m reading)

Every market seems to be overcrowded nowadays. It doesn’t matter if you’re a science fiction author or a plumber.

But what if you could find ways to create and tap new markets, and thereby make the competition irrelevant?

This is the premise behind the book, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. The authors, Renée Mauborgne and W.Chan Kim, developed the ideas in this book while researching and writing a handful of articles over the years. If you compete in a crowded marketplace (and who doesn’t?), Blue Ocean Strategy is very much worth reading. Continue reading “‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ (what I’m reading)”

The Best Short Stories 2019

I like short stories, and so I am a habitual reader of the annual Best Short Stories collections, which are edited by Heidi Pitlor and a guest editor.

This series often leads me to the discovery of new writers whose work I enjoy. It was the 2007 edition (guest-edited by Stephen King) that introduced me to the work of the late William Gay (1941~2012). I went on to read all of of Gay’s published books after that. The 2007 collection  collection also features John Barth’s memorable tale on age and mortality, “Toga Party”. 

But we’re talking about the 2019 collection, guest-edited by Anthony Doerr. I listened to the audio version of the book. (I went through several stories while I was mowing my lawn and my dad’s lawn, in fact.)

This collection is very much a mixed bag. Some of these stories are (in my estimation, at least), pointlessly depressing, navel-gazing stories, while some are actually quite good. 

There are two well-known names in the collection: Jeffry Eugenides and Ursula K. LeGuin. I did not like either of their offerings. No big surprise in either case: I enjoyed Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot; but Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides both left me cold. And Ursula K. LeGuin’s work has never been to my taste.

That said, there are a handful of genuinely good stories in this collection—or stories that held my attention, anyway. These included Weike Wang’s “Omakase,”, Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object”, and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition”. 

Don’t let my very mixed assessment of this very mixed collection dissuade you from giving it a try, if short stories are your thing. Any anthology containing work from different authors is going to be, by definition, uneven and punctuated with many ups and downs. While I did not like all the stories in this book, the good ones more than offset the ones that weren’t to my taste.

***

View The Best American Short Stories 2019 on Amazon

Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon

Different from the novels, but good nonetheless

Tonight I started watching the Amazon original series, Bosch

I’m a little behind on this one, I know. (The series premiered in 2015.) But hey—I got to The Sopranos only a few years ago. I am, however, a very longtime reader of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, so I knew that I would eventually find my way to the Amazon series, too.

First things first: This isn’t the Harry Bosch of the novels. The Harry Bosch of the novels is now about 70 years old. The onscreen Harry Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) is a old Gen Xer or a young Baby Boomer. (The actor, Welliver, was born in 1962.) Continue reading “Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon”

Traveling (virtually) through fiction

10 Books That Will Transport You All Around the World

If you can’t out (thanks to the quarantine, of course), then why not read a novel about a distant location? That seems to be the idea here.

I’ve read one book on the list: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

That one was pretty good, and you can get it on Amazon

‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, and why I’ve chosen to reread it now

Like a lot of readers in recent days, I’ve been seized by a sudden (and arguably masochistic) urge to reread The Stand. This is Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel of a “super-flu” called Captain Trips. In the novel, at least, the super-flu wipes out civilization and leaves few survivors.

So I went ahead and ordered it from Amazon the other day.

The premise of The Stand is obviously topical now. But this is also a book populated with some of Stephen King’s most memorable characters: Stu Redman, Franni Goldsmith, Mother Abigail, etc. It is a long book, but it is not a slow book.

The Stand is the most common favorite of longtime Stephen King readers, a fact which has caused the author a certain amount of chagrin over the years. In at least one interview, King wondered aloud why so many readers give their highest rating to a book that he wrote while still in his early 30s. But that’s the way it goes with art sometimes.

I read this book for the first time in 1984. I was in high school then, and those were simpler times. That isn’t just my nostalgic side speaking. Heck, last year was simpler times.

Like a lot of you, I’ve been feeling a little bit like a character in The Stand of late, and I want this movie to end, already. The good news is that coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as Captain Trips, nor should a cure or a vaccine indefinitely elude researchers.

But yes, these are unsettling days, and we all need the catharsis of a good story—even one we’ve read before, a long time ago.

View The Stand by Stephen King on Amazon.

A story that scared me in 1977

I can recall the first time that I was actually scared by something that I read.

It was the summer of 1977. Somehow a book of short horror stories had come into my possession: Stories of Ghosts, Witches, and Demons. This slender 80-page volume, edited by Freya Littledale, was published by Scholastic in 1971.

Although I read the book cover-to-cover, I have forgotten all of the stories—except one: an especially creepy tale called, “The Demon of Detroit”.

This is the story of a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, who move into a house in the Motor City. They soon discover that they aren’t alone. Something horrible inhabits their back bedroom.

After a series of disturbing events, the couple decides to move out of the house. The last lines of the story are particularly haunting: They indicate that the Adamses “admit defeat”. Whatever lurks in the back bedroom will now have the rest of the home to itself, too.

The full text of the story (along with a clip of the artwork appearing in the original Scholastic publication) is available online. I do recognize the artwork. I can’t say for certain if the transcription of the 1971 text is one hundred percent faithful. (I was nine years old in 1977, after all.)

“The Demon of Detroit” seems to be based on an urban legend from the 1960s, which has enjoyed a modest contemporary revival. Urban legends, I’ve found, often make good source material for horror films and short stories, because urban legends are instantly relatable and easy to grasp. They aren’t overly complex. That’s important in horror film and fiction.

“The Demon of Detroit” also demonstrates the effectiveness of the short form in horror. This short story is perhaps a thousand words long. Obviously, they won’t all be that short. But as a rule of thumb with horror: the longer the story, the harder it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief. (Notice that Poe, Lovecraft, and even Stephen King are at their best when writing in the short form.)

“The Demon of Detroit” is a story that begins with a subtle atmosphere of darkness, and builds, over about a thousand words, to something truly malevolent.

“The Demon of Detroit” scared the bejesus out of me in 1977. I reread it today (the online version). It still brings a chill to my spine, forty-three years later.

Clive Cussler dead at 88

Clive Cussler, best known as the author of the Dirk Pitt adventure series, has passed away at the age of 88.

He had a long career. Cussler’s first Dirk Pitt novel was published in 1973. He kept writing right up till the very end, albeit with the help of cowriters. His last book came out in 2019.

He will be missed, both by intimates as well as strangers.

Eighty-eight, though, represents a good, long run. Cussler’s life, moreover, seems to have been a happy and fulfilled one.

No one will claim that Cussler’s books were classic literature. They were fun, however.

Arguably we need more fiction like that—Cussler-esque stories that are just plain fun.

Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020), R.I.P.

‘Dark Shadows’, the original novel

One rainy afternoon during the summer of 1982, I found myself out in the country in a double-wide trailer. My only real source of entertainment was an old Zenith television set that received but two or three channels. (I’ll spare you the backstory of all that.)

It was on this day that I discovered—quite by accident—that old vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows

And yes, Dark Shadows, which originally aired from 1966 to 1971, was old even then. I was skeptical as the opening credits played. But like I said, this was a rainy summer afternoon and I had no other sources of diversion. I gave this old show a chance…

And I discovered that…Dark Shadows was pretty darn good. 

Not quite a horror show, not quite a conventional drama, Dark Shadows is filled with interesting characters and intrigue. I don’t like Dark Shadows nearly as much as I like some modern series like The Americans or The Sopranos (two other serial dramas about families with secrets); but this is still quite impressive for television that was written and produced when I was a babe in diapers.

So when the audiobook of Marilyn Ross’s original Dark Shadows novel was on sale recently, I decided to give it a try. 

The novel is pretty good, too. Once again, this is entertainment from another era; and you have to judge it for what it is. But here, too, the story of Victoria Winters’s interactions with the mysterious Collins family is well, oddly captivating. 

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this might be for you. 

‘Follow the River’ by James Alexander Thom

In 1755, during the French and Indian War, Mary Draper Ingles, a pregnant 23-year-old woman living in southwest Virginia, was kidnapped by a band of migratory Shawnee. They transported her to Ohio, and kept her as a slave.

Ingles escaped her Shawnee captors, and eventually fled home along a river route. Part of this route has been named after Ingles, the Mary Ingles Highway in Northern Kentucky.

As I live in the Cincinnati area, I’ve been on the Mary Ingles Highway many times, but I never knew much about the actual woman.

I’ve been reading James Alexander Thom’s biographical novel of Ingles, Follow the River (1982). Suffice it to say that the book is a page-turner. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys both history and a good story.

View Follow the River on Amazon

‘The Night Fire’ and Renée Ballard

I’m reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Night Fire, and it’s pretty good so far. (I’m about 2/3 through the book.)

This is Connelly’s third Renée Ballard book, and—if memory serves me—the second novel in which she teams up with retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Like most Michael Connelly fans, I love the Harry Bosch novels. I’ve read every one of them.

The problem, though, is that Harry Bosch will be seventy this year. (Those of you who’ve read all the books have probably already done the math, too.) Bosch is a Vietnam vet and a Baby Boomer. He’s way past the age of a working detective. 

Connelly has kept Harry Bosch active for so long (my guesses) because a.) Bosch has been a lot of fun for him to write, and b.) Bosch has been very lucrative, both for Connelly and his publishers. 

But sooner or later, Harry had to retire. That meant that Connelly had to either find a new series detective, or revisit some of Bosch’s past adventures.

But the Bosch series has always been present-based, so I doubt that the second option was really an option. Connelly needed a new character…which brings us to Renée Ballard.

Renée Ballard is about as unlike Harry Bosch as she could be. She’s not only female, but also a Millennial. Whereas Harry was “old school” all the way, Renée Ballard shares the concerns of a stereotypical “woke” Millennial. (In the first Ballard novel, she scolds someone for accidentally misgendering a transgender crime victim.)

Part of Renée Ballard’s backstory is that she was sexually harassed by her former boss, Captain Olivas. This history, and the ongoing tensions between Ballard and Olivas, comprise a recurring element in the Ballard series so far.

The net result of all this is that the Renée Ballard novels have a very different feel than the earlier Harry Bosch novels. Connelly seems to be attempting to make the Ballard books at least partly focused on contemporary controversies. This was never a fixture of the Bosch books, which were apolitical police procedurals. 

Keep in mind that Renée Ballard is a fictional character. This means that she is not a real Millennial female detective, but rather, the image that a 63 year-old male writer has of a Millennial female detective, and Millennial women in general. 

I have to wonder if the lingering presence of Bosch in these novels isn’t indicative of a.) Connelly’s discomfort in writing in the unfamiliar headspace of a Millennial woman, or b.) Connelly’s fear that longtime Bosch fans won’t “get” Renée Ballard. 

Or c.)  maybe a little of both.

Only Michael Connelly knows the answer to that one, of course.

I have to wonder, though, if the author really made a good decision in picking a Bosch replacement who is a.) three decades younger than him, and b.) of a different gender.

Connelly might have felt the conscious need to make his next character a non-white-male type. When the first Bosch novel was published in 1992, the racial, gender, and sexual identities of fictional characters weren’t seen as matters of life and death. But times have changed. Perhaps Connelly didn’t want to be seen as an older white male author who only wrote about older white male detectives. Perhaps his publishers put pressure on him in this regard. 

I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that Harry Bosch was—and is—far easier for Michael Connelly to write. The Renée Ballard books are still good, but sometimes the reader gets the sense that Michael Connelly isn’t having quite as much fun writing Harry Bosch’s successor.

I could be wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me—as both a reader and a writer.