Thursday, May 29, 2008

Look Closer

You may be thinking, "Wait a minute. This is a blog about horror. What's with the late-seventies prog-rock album cover?"

And if you'd never taken a closer look at The Alan Parson Project's 1979 release, Eve, you'd be justified in thinking that.

But if you have, you already know why I posted this. Because it starts out looking perfectly normal and ends up being perfectly horrifying.

Go ahead and click on the image -- I went to great pains to find the largest, highest-res version available. Take a look. Then look closer.

I saw this album cover several times in the store before I really looked at it. But the day I did -- on a Sunday afternoon, at a record store in a Des Moines, Iowa mall -- I was at first shocked, then disgusted, and finally, thrilled.

I'd been suckered, and now I was in on the joke, and I loved it.

I wish more frightening films and fiction took this approach. The other night I started watching Saw III. It opens with a man sawing off his leg, and lingers on all the gory details. And I turned it off after 15 minutes, because when something starts at 11, there aren't too many other places it can go, other than serving up one more 11 after another.

Shock. Shock. Shock. Shock. Shock. Before too long it stops being shocking and starts being boring.

This attitude probably won't endear me to the younger generation, for whom the Saw series is aimed. But like everyone else they'll get older some day. They'll have seen it all and wonder why none of it satisfies them any more, and then they'll understand.

When something sneaks up on you -- appearing at first to be one thing, lulling you into a comfortable place, and then later revealing itself to be something much, much worse -- you really do get a shock from it.

When something bad happens to a character you identify with and care about, you really do feel it.

When tension is created and then released in an act of horror or violence, you really get your money's worth.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Too Much, Too Late

As recently as January I was in love with both the leading Democratic presidential candidates, even going so far as to say I would favor a ticket with either of them in the lead spot as long as the other was there to play back-up.

But love and presidential politics are fickle things. It's true the Democratic race has been close, but what's also true is that Barack Obama has emerged as the winner in terms of elected delegates, super delegates, popular vote and the number of states won. With or without Florida and Michigan.

What's also true -- at least in my mind and in the minds of a majority of Democratic voters -- is that Hillary Clinton has clung to her failed presidential campaign far longer than is good for any of us. Especially her.

This became clear yesterday, when she invoked the assassination of Democratic front-runner Robert F. Kennedy in June of 1968 as a reason to continue running for a nomination that stopped being hers weeks if not months ago.

Here's the video of that fateful interview with a South Dakota newspaper, for those of you just tuning in.

You can tell when she mentions the subject that she realizes she's gone too far. There's a slight pause, even a brief look of fear or horror as the words leave her mouth and sail into history.

Hillary Clinton is driven and committed and no doubt exhausted from intense and unrelenting work; perhaps at this point in the race she is even desperate. But rationalizations aside, it's still a shocking glimpse into the mind of a candidate who has already stooped to all manner of fuzzy math, reneged promises, flimsy truths and outright lies to justify her ongoing presence in the race.

If a campaign can be considered a taste of a candidate's presidency, it's clear at least to me that Clinton's would be more of the same fast-talking flim-flam and disregard for reality that has characterized George Bush's presidency as the worst in our nation's history.

Not only is Robert Kennedy's assassination just weeks away from its 40th anniversary, Clinton also gave voice to a chilling specter in American politics that has taken some of our nation's best and and most inspiring leaders, and is for many an ongoing concern during this race as well.

For weeks now I've had a private response to every pundit who's speculated on the possibility of an Obama/Clinton "dream ticket." Now it's time to make it public. Senator Obama should not consider selecting Hillary Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate for even one minute, because I believe she would have him killed in order to be President of the United States.

Keith Olbermann -- for whom I have tremendous respect and gratitude for telling it like it is during these dark years -- said it better than me with this special comment last night on his MSNBC show Countdown.

Ms. Clinton, you have finally, unmistakably and irrevocably gone too far. There's no place left for you to go now except home.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Them Bones, Them Bones...

Meat is delicious when prepared correctly. In my book, that means without bones, because bones are visceral reminders that the tasty dish I'm enjoying is really nothing more than a dead animal in my mouth.

I realize most of the world doesn't share my feelings.

So it may have grossed me out more than others when I saw a man on the bus enjoying a chicken bone.

It wasn't a big leg bone, but something smaller, parked like a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.

Occasionally he would gnaw or suck on it, and despite the bus being crowded with all kinds of people and the bone having been picked nearly clean, the smell of fried chicken was unmistakable.

I stared at the guy in horrified fascination as he worked on his treasure like a family dog, until he got off somewhere around Sheridan and Rosemont. Shortly thereafter I decided this would be my post for the day.

Go ahead and mock me. Call me a fragile aesthete or worse. A packed bus is no place to go all caveman on something probably left over from lunch.

That is all. I'll see myself out.

Monday, May 19, 2008

In Good Company

Today I can announce that my short story "The Boys of Bald Cave" will be appearing in the Dark Scribe Press anthology Unspeakable Horror. (That's the cover art there on the left.)

In it, two twelve-year-old boys awaken a malevolent presence inside the cave near their homes. When one later vanishes, the other covers up the true circumstances behind his disappearance and must live with his own guilt and shame.

All through the month of May Dark Scribe Press has been announcing their authors, and I'm pleased to say they've put together an impressive line-up. It's an honor to be included among them.

You can find out more about the anthology and its authors at the Dark Scribe Press web site.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Odd Thomas" by Dean Koontz

I've never read a Dean Koontz book. I've always been a Stephen King reader, supposing, incorrectly, that you could only be one or the other.

But when someone recommended Odd Thomas to me after hearing my novel idea, I knew I had to check it out.

Odd Thomas is the first of what is currently four Odd novels and a comic book slated for publication in June of 2008. After striking gold with one stand-alone book after another for years, it seems Koontz hit platinum with this character, and is more than happy to keep mining the vein for as long as it produces.

Good on him, I say, even though the publishing industry's desire for -- or insistence on -- series books is a trend that leaves me cold.

Odd -- whose name was supposed to be Todd before it was botched on his birth certificate --
is a twenty-year-old fry cook in Pico Mundo ("little world"), California. He's adjusted to his strange talent for seeing the dead by limiting himself to a small-town existence, where ugly deaths from murders, suicides and car accidents -- and the restless spirits they produce -- are a relative rarity. Life, for him, is just more peaceful that way, and Odd confesses he could never live in a large city, where unhappy souls are produced by the dozens on a daily basis.

And yet, despite Pico Mundo's picturesque calm, the disgruntled dead have a way of finding Odd just the same. The book opens with the appearance of a murdered twelve-year-old girl and Odd's heroic pursuit of her assailant through the town's tract homes and swimming pools.

Because of thrilling captures like this, Odd is trusted by the local sheriff as someone who can help solve -- and occasionally prevent -- crimes. So when a stranger arrives and Odd gets a whiff of his less-than-savory plans, it's practically no time at all before he and the reader are on another chase to get to the bottom of things and save the day.

Though Odd is a likeable character with a good head on his shoulders, a girlfriend to whom he's eternally devoted, and a strong desire to do right by the wronged spirits he encounters, his actions often strained my own suspension of disbelief. He laments getting involved in crime and punishment, yet seems eager to break into a suspect's house in search of clues. He enjoys the sheriff's respect and friendship, yet when confronted by a dead body in his apartment he goes to great lengths to conceal the evidence, as if the police wouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt.

Koontz tries his darnedest to justify these odd reactions in order to keep everything moving swiftly forward, but in the end it required more than a bit of indulgence on my part. However, when it comes to learning from an author who's got the mechanics of plot and story down cold, there are plenty of worse examples out there to follow.

Though his writing and character work seem less polished than King's, Koontz doesn't get bogged down in the drive for literary importance that has marred some of his contemporary's latest efforts. (This may have changed, however, with the release of The Darkest Evening of the Year, which appears to be chasing some of the same ambitions.)

Still, the book is a satisfying enough read, and even though I saw the ending headed down the tracks from miles away, it still managed to be a surprisingly emotional moment for me. This was my first Dean Koontz book, but I'm pretty sure it won't be my last.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This is Not Me...

...even though this little guy's name is C. Michael Cook. I found him while I was vainly Googling myself. Apparently this picture was taken right after his first communion, and I can't say he looks very happy to have just received the body and blood of Christ.

The blog I found him on is a little bit creepy, even though it's all about Catholicism. When I first saw it I thought I'd stumbled onto some kind of secret religious society, but it's really just a guy named Charles Michael Cook doling out Novenas and Hail Marys to the faithful on a daily basis.

Michael Cook is not a name like John Smith, but there are a lot of them just the same. Eight in Chicago alone, which would make tracking me down a frustrating but not hopeless endeavor, if anyone out there is entertaining the idea.

One Saturday night when I was fourteen and home alone, I decided to call directory assistance in different cities and ask for myself. I got in touch with one Michael Cook in New York. I explained to him what I was doing and he recommended I see a shrink. Not only have I taken his advice numerous times over the years, but I also wrote a one-man play about it when I was in college.

There's a Michael Cook in Toronto who's a photographer and designer, a Michael Cook in Texas who's big in real estate, a Michael Cook who's written numerous book on Islamic history, a Michael Cook who's fairly good-looking and sings Christian music, a Michael Cook who was a British playwright, and even a Michael Cook in Albuquerque who painted twelve portraits of men who are also named Michael Cook.

Having the name Michael Cook makes doing things like finding decent URLs a challenge. Or distinguishing yourself from the pack. Sometimes I get angry calls from collection agencies, because there's a Michael Cook who doesn't like paying his bills. He may be the same one who fathered and abandoned a son a few years back, who's name is also Michael Cook.

My friend Scottie used to live in NYC, and once when I was visiting him I overheard someone say, "Even if you're one in a million, there are eight of you in New York." But there are only six Michael Cooks in New York City, which I guess makes me one in 1,333,333.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Directions to Speak to a Ghost

According to her web site,, Nicole Zapruder has been speaking to the dead since she was four years old -- or approximately 30 years, judging from her photo.

Born with a natural gift for communicating with the other side, over the years she has experimented with several techniques to refine her abilities. Now, using something called the Grey Walter-Berger Construct, she's discovered a method she claims is 73% effective -- for anyone -- with repeated use.

You can try it right now -- if you dare and have a few minutes to kill. Read the warnings first, then watch the embedded video on her home page that reproduces the effects of the Grey Walter-Berger Construct.

Critics of Nicole and her site claim it's nothing more than a viral marketing ploy to support the Australian release of The Orphanage. If so, this post is surely making some heartless Aussie marketer clap their hands in glee, because I just became a carrier.

But I'm always hoping to find something truly otherworldly on the web. Maybe this is it.

I haven't tried it yet -- but I will. You should, too. And if you do talk to the dead, be sure to let me know what they say.

Friday, May 9, 2008

I Got My Web On

It only took several years and a couple weeks' worth of perplexing work to finally get my own web site up and running. Thank the folks at the anthology for finally giving me the motivation to take care of business.

Stop by for a close and personal look. But stick around here, because this is where all the heavy-duty action will take place.

Next step: Getting this blog to look more like my web site. (After working in advertising all my life, I truly appreciate the power of branding.)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Grim Reaper Catches My Eye

I smoke. This is something I'm not proud of, and I think about the consequences of it all the time.

A few days ago, as I was having a cigarette outside the building in which I currently work, a man walked by me and coughed.

This was no ordinary cough. Or even one of those self-righteous "I hate smoking" types of coughs that a certain type of busybody enjoys handing out as they pass a group of smokers on the street.

No. This was a full-on, dual-victim-of-tuberculosis-and-plague, with-a-bad-case-of-grippe kind of cough. It was deep-seated, resonant and rattling. And when he was finished, to top off what had already been a dramatic performance, he hawked like an Iowa farmer and spit a gob of God-knows-what into a nearby trash can. (It could have been worse -- he could have left it on the sidewalk.)

This by itself -- me smoking and another man coughing up a full four ounces of mucus in front of me -- would have been odd enough to note.

But at that exact same moment another man was walking toward us in the opposite direction. He was older, bald, tall and a bit gaunt. He noticed the man coughing first -- he would have had to be deaf and blind to miss him -- and then he saw me. And he gave me a look, one with a knowing and arched eyebrow that seemed to say, "See? How do you like that?"

There was little I could do and still maintain my dignity. So I simply shrugged and gave him a look back. A "what-are-you-going-to-do?" look. But inside, it felt like fate was wagging its finger at me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Time Crunch

Back in October of last year I left a career in advertising to concentrate on writing fiction -- a move that could justifiably be compared to quitting your day job in order to play the lottery full-time.

My reasons behind this decision were many and varied, but generally fell along the lines of really wanting to do it, being able to do it (at least for a while) and feeling that if I didn't do it I'd end up regretting it.

So from November of 2007 until April of 2008 I did nothing but stay home and write and spend my savings. I started a novel, and wrote three or four stories, and even managed to get one of them into an anthology. I didn't do too bad for a beginner, but I didn't exactly take the world by storm, either.

In March I got an opportunity to participate in a 2-3 month freelance project and, smelling good money that would further finance my writing lifestyle, I took it.

I knew returning to a full-time work situation -- even temporarily -- would affect the time and energy I could devote to fiction writing. I worked full-time for twenty years, after all, and during that part of my life I never wrote consistently and only managed to produce a couple pieces of any consequence. Sitting in front of a computer all day does not predispose me to doing the same thing all night. But I figured that if I applied a little discipline and set a reasonable weekly word count for myself that, somehow, I would be able to do both.

Apparently I forgot just what the 9-5 -- or 9-6 -- routine, with an hour commute on both ends, five days a week, does to me. It's been a month now, and while I was fairly perky and determined the first couple weeks, things have taken a turn for the worst since then.

Last week I missed my quota -- a very manageable 1500 words -- and I'm beginning to wonder if I'll be able to make it this one as well.

At times like this I like to beat myself up. The routine goes something along the lines of: If I was really any good, 1500 words a week wouldn't be a problem, so I must be pretty shitty, and so why am I wasting my time at all, and it's a pity I don't like my job more, because it's obvious that's all I'll ever be good for, and doesn't that suck, and how in the world can I go on living like this?

I've been thinking a lot about my friends John Hornor Jacobs, Kurt Dinan, Elizabeth Blue, Tracy Carbone, Martel Sardina and Tyler Monfredi -- all folks who work full-time, raise kids and still manage to write. Or my friend Jill Olson, who works full-time, writes music and plays in two bands.

Sometimes I wonder how they do it. Sometimes I wonder what the difference between them and me is. Sometimes I wonder if there's really any difference at all.

And that got me thinking about people who have to work two jobs just to make ends meet, and how frustrated and despondent they must get -- not just from time to time, but all the fucking time.

It's one thing to work full-time and struggle to achieve your dream of writing. It's an entirely different one to work two or more jobs and struggle to achieve your dream of supporting yourself and your family.

Despite the tone of this post, I'm not complaining. I'm not that frustrated, either. Even at its worst I've got a better life than many people in the U.S., and most people in the world. I've got nothing to bitch about except having more desires than time.

And really, when you get down to it, isn't that true of everybody?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Matters of Life and Death

A cheery article in today's news reports that a task force of influential physicians and academics have developed a series of guidelines to help medical personnel deliver health care in the event of a widespread emergency.

Recognizing that the nation's health care system will quickly become overburdened with millions of people in the case of a natural disaster or pandemic, they set out to create a system which medical workers can use to provide or withhold care.

Among those who could conceivably be turned away at the door are people over 85, individuals with serious burns or injuries, or anyone with severe dementia or Alzheimer's. Basically, if you were old or sick to begin with and you show up during a widespread emergency, you're going to the back of the line. Way, way back.

While creating these guidelines is probably good planning on the part of health care experts, what chilled me was the article's tone of inevitability. Particularly the phrase, "the proposed guidelines are designed to be a blueprint for hospitals so that everybody will be thinking in the same way when pandemic flu or another widespread health care disaster hits."

Not if, but when.

This has been your good scare for the day.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Southland Tales"

2006; written and directed by Richard Kelly

It's hard not to open up a review of Richard Kelly's second film without mentioning his first, Donnie Darko. Released a few months after 9/11, Darko's strange and swirling mix of time travel, teen tragedy and a giant rabbit named Frank was just not the movie America wanted to see at that point in history. Even given the presence of an unknown Jake Gyllenhaal in what is still one of his best and most appealing roles.

But time passed and the film caught on after its DVD release, becoming a cult hit that challenged viewers to solve the puzzle inside a high-school romance within a satire that was all part of a larger and lovingly recreated late-eighties period piece. What audiences ignored shortly after 9/11 became, a year or two later, a very necessary and relevant film for a lot of people in their twenties and thirties.

So it's difficult to dismiss Southland Tales as a fractured and uneven piece of political criticism and speculative storytelling, put together by a hot young writer/director who suddenly found himself the Next Big Thing with a budget to match. Even though it is all of those things.

The film opens with the 2005 nuclear bombing of Abilene, Texas, but takes place three years later in a 2008 that is both comfortably familiar and eerily different. America the brave has become a country where governments and corporations profit from a climate of fear. Interstate visas are required of all travelers, black-clad cops roam the streets of Los Angeles, and a new federal entity, USIdent, now patrols television and the Internet in an effort to combat terrorism.

Dwayne Johnson, AKA "The Rock," plays a movie star named Boxer Santaros who's married to a woman with strong connections to the Republican party. Only he's been missing for three days and has a girlfriend, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Geller) who's a porn star with a public access TV show and a thriller script she's shopping around town.

Meanwhile, a radical left group known as the New Marxists has kidnapped one of the new cops named Roland Taverner, played by Sean William Scott, who also plays Roland's twin brother Ronald. Oh, and there's a new source of energy powered by ocean waves called "Liquid Karma" that has also become a hot new street drug.

And there's a presidential election going on. And a conspiracy to release video of Boxer and his girlfriend. And the whole thing is narrated by Justin Timberlake, playing a wounded Iraq War vet.

Or at least, I think so.

Through most of Southland Tales I felt like I was seeing a fantastic mess unspool in front of me. It was strange and beautiful and smart, like a date with a hottie who's a great conversationalist but doesn't always make sense and might just be more than a little crazy.

At times, I felt like Kelly wanted me to feel like I was watching a David Lynch film -- specifically Mulholland Drive, which also takes place in Los Angeles, plays with time shifts and dual identities, creates a mood of accelerating dread, and features a vocal performance by Rebecca del Rio. At others I saw glimpses of The Fifth Element, Soylent Green and Network.

It's not a film for everyone. But as a friend of mine occasionally says, "If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like." And I did.

Yes, to some Southland Tales might seem like a picture put together from the parts of two or more separate jigsaw puzzles. (It's not an unfair criticism). But just as psychologists say that fear and excitement are two different responses to the same stimulus, so too is your reaction to Southland Tales. You may find it confusing or mysterious, sharply observed or blunt, surprising or bumpy. So much depends upon who you are and what kind of mood you're in when you see it.

One thing that's clear: Kelly's obsessions are on full display in Southland Tales, and some of them make Donnie Darko's questions about time travel seem like high-school stuff. Politics and the drive for power, entertainment and the desire for fame, the existence of the soul, personal freedom versus safety, even a character that gets shot in the eye like Frank the giant rabbit -- they're all here, writhing together beneath the heat of the California sun and under the eye of a vast and chaotic universe.

The cast -- led by Dwayne Johnson looking like he just stepped out of a video game, and Seann William Scott looking better than I've ever seen him -- is largely made up of a dozen familiar faces from television sketch comedy shows: Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Will Sasso and John Lovitz, just to name a few. I have to wonder why Kelly chose these actors to people his universe. Is he making a statement about the improvisational nature of political actions and their responses, a comment on the humorous nature of life during even the most troubling times, or merely saying the joke is on us?

Like so much about Southland Tales, I don't know the answer to that. I may have to see it again to make up my mind. Or a third time, or even a fourth.