Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Stewmaker

A "body disposal expert" for a Mexican drug cartel was recently arrested in Tijuana.

Dubbed "El Pozolero" -- after a traditional Mexican stew of pork, hominy and chilies called pozole -- Santiago Meza Lopez has confessed to dissolving some 300 bodies in vats of caustic liquid.

After receiving each body, Lopez would fill a drum with water and two sacks of caustic soda, then heat the mixture over a fire. When it began boiling he would add the body. After cooking for eight hours, only teeth and nails would be left. Once the liquid had cooled, Lopez would burn the mixture with gasoline in a nearby empty lot.

For this, Lopez was paid $600 a week. A solid spot in Mexican folklore was never part of the bargain, but I imagine Lopez has earned that as well.

During his prison stay, stories will pass from one person to another, rumor and speculation added to each new telling. After Lopez's own death, his legend will only grow. I can imagine children whispering tales to one another about the terrible "pozolero" and his grisly concoctions. Parents might frighten their errant sons and daughters with threats that the stewmaker will come and take them away if they don't behave. Ultimately, anyone -- or anything -- that goes missing will be ascribed to the evil stewmaker.

Conversely, I can also imagine the popularity of pozole reaching record lows.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Eight-Year-Old Boy Lives with Dead Mother for 10 Days

Sad and scary and, for me, a story idea.

Boy, 8, Lives with Dead Mother for 10 Days

ROMULUS, Mich. (AP) - An 8-year-old boy lived for more than a week with the body of his dead mother before anyone discovered his situation, police said.

The woman, 41, apparently died Jan. 9 in their apartment in the Detroit suburb of Romulus, and the boy survived in part by eating dried rice, butter and flour, authorities said.

The boy came into Romulus Liquor in recent days wearing pajama bottoms and buying snacks, store owner Sam Saco told The Detroit News.

Saco said his brother Lee, the store's co-owner, became suspicious Monday when the boy tried to buy soda, flour and doughnuts with his mother's expired credit card.

Lee Saco asked to talk to the boy's mother, his brother told the newspaper, and the boy replied, "My mom's in a better place right now." He also said, "I tried to wake her up every day. I wanted to talk to her," Sam Saco said.

The boy was home-schooled, has no siblings and his father died several years ago, authorities said. The two had moved to Michigan from Louisiana after surviving Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Police did not release the names of the mother and child. Foul play was not suspected in the woman's death.

The child is in foster care while police try to locate his other relatives, Romulus police Lt. John Leacher said.

Sam Saco told the paper Tuesday that he felt guilty he had not called police earlier.

"The things he went through," said Sam Saco. "I'm shaken. I'm almost about to cry. I've been thinking all night about the kid."

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Miracle Mile"

1988; written and directed by Steve de Jarnatt

My first experience with Miracle Mile came some time during the close of the 1980s. I remember watching it on a rented VHS and being blown away -- no pun intended.

Back then it was little more than a surprisingly effective low-budget thriller about two star-crossed lovers who finally meet mere hours before the end of the world.

Twenty years later it's still a surprisingly effective low-budget thriller, one that still shocks with the strength of its convictions. But the passage of two decades has added a sweet nostalgic ache to the thing that only ratchets up the film's tragic aspects.

Anthony Edwards plays a jazz trombonist who accidentally intercepts a panicked phone call from a missile silo employee. The bombs -- yes, those bombs -- are about to drop. After convincing himself it's no joke, Edwards first tries to warn a motley collection of diner customers about the impending disaster, then rushes through the city to rescue his new-found love, the spiky-haired Mare Winningham.

All the fast-paced action takes place in a pastel Los Angeles of palm trees, monumental architecture and flashing neon lights that feels like spending a long night inside Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In addition to its throbbing soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, the film is a showcase of perfectly preserved Reagan-era collectibles.

Denise Crosby shows up as an executrix with a cell phone the size of a Wii. A television station signs off at the end of its broadcast day to waving flags and the national anthem. Eyeglasses and earrings alike are big and round, red shirts are paired with blue suit jackets, dresses are purple and teal. Two people meet and fall in love and run from disaster through the streets of an eerily sleeping Los Angeles. It's hard to believe we once lived in a such a strange and candy-colored time.

When time finally runs out -- and it does -- two worlds are gone forever: de Jarnatt's sleek nightmare of stylish annihilation, and the version of it many of us lived in back then.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Has It Been Almost Two Weeks Already?

Time flies when you're in the shit. It's been almost two weeks since my last blog update, because I've been dealing with some horrors of my own.

Work horror, for starters, which can really eat me up. I'm always amazed at how quickly, how completely, work situations can consume me, body, mind and soul. It's a wonder more writers don't set horror stories in offices. Perhaps it's just too close for comfort, and editors, upon seeing a submission with that setting, would simply consider it a "dog bites man" story and consign it to the dustbin. Still, I think there's rich ground there for the right person at the right time, which would be me now.

Then there's weather horror, for that extra miserable flavor. Have you heard how cold it is here in Chicago? And snowy? This kind of deep-freeze always seems to set in some time after the holidays, a meteorological reminder that the fun is officially over and it's going to be a few months before anything changes for the better. If it's the least bit warm, you can bet the skies will be low and gray. If the sun is shining, it only heralds the arrival of a brilliant, biting cold. I've lived my entire life in the Midwest, and I'm used to this, but every year it seems a little bit worse, a tiny bit longer.

The steady drum beat of economic horror from every news source is also ratcheting up the tension. I think we're all wondering how long this will last, how bad it will get, how much more we can take, and how in the world we got here in the first place. Rightly or not, I blame a large, mostly faceless group of bankers and executives, and I carry a generalized but seething pot of anger with their name on it everywhere I go. For the first time in my life I understand what those bumper stickers that say "Eat the rich" are talking about.

Which leads me back to my work horror.

A good example of the national mood came as an aside during this morning's CNN broadcast. They'd just finished an update on the USAir crash into the Hudson River. The anchors were remarking once again -- and deservedly so -- on Captain Sullenberger's heroism and what a miracle it is that all 155 passengers and crew survived. Then, just before going to a commercial break, one anchor said to the other, "It's something, isn't it, when a plane crash can brighten the nation's spirit?"

It sure is.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Horror of Insomnia

Until a few years ago I never had trouble sleeping. I could sleep anywhere, at any time, and for as long as I liked. It was something I took a certain pride in, like being able to play the piano or making a really good spaghetti sauce.

And then, something changed.

Until I experienced it for myself, I didn't understand insomnia. For me it's not so much the inability to sleep -- though Lord knows that's the horrid end result -- but the inability to quiet my mind.

In the vast emptiness of night's dark middle, thoughts repeat and echo in mad, broken-record rhythms. Long-buried memories unearth themselves and take on new, vivid life. Fears and worries creep out of the shadows and crawl into bed beside me. Would-haves, should-haves and could-haves moan and rattle their chains. Often, I swear I can hear the far-away, nautical sound of fog horns somewhere outside.

Insomniacs are haunted. Not by ghosts -- though a poet or storyteller might make an effective case for that -- but by our own lives.

(Though it's been years since I've read it, Stephen King's Insomnia was a disappointment to me in this respect. His protagonist, though plagued with a lifetime of regrets, wasn't troubled so much by his own thoughts and memories as by the things he witnessed during his late-night vigils.)

The cartoon above by Roz Chast made me laugh out loud when I saw it yesterday. (Click the image for a larger version.) I cut it out and put it on the refrigerator, and I've looked at it again several times since. It's hysterically funny, because it's so frighteningly spot-on.

Sleep well.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Thanks for Mentioning It

Writer and reviewer Martel Sardina professes a weakness for Pepsi. I should send a case of it to her for this mention in her review of Horror Library: Volume 3.
"In 'The Living World,' C. Michael Cook explores the motivating force behind one woman’s eating disorder, and caused this reviewer to suffer a loss of appetite herself. The scariest thing about this story was the realization that the patient’s logic is true."
Check out the rest of the review at Dark Scribe Magazine. And buy the book!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy Whole Year

My Grandma DeMoss was a superstitious person, and she passed that quality on to me.

It's probably fair to say that superstitious people live in a state of constant, low-grade fear, and that all their lucky tokens and protective rituals are aimed solely at keeping that fear at bay.

New Year's Eve and Day always find me at my most superstitious. The enormity of one year passing -- with all its victories and defeats -- and another one arriving -- with all its unknown promise and peril -- kicks both my hopes and fears into their highest gear.

For instance, I like to have the Christmas tree and all the decorations taken down by New Year's Eve, to keep from dragging the old into the new. This is why I go through any unprocessed mail and make sure all the trash has been taken out as well.

And because I believe that what you do on New Year's Day you end up doing all year long, I try not to wake up hungover, to eat healthy meals, reconnect with an old friend, write and exercise and perform a good deed or two.

For the past several years I've also observed a New Year's Eve ritual of my own making, one designed to purge everything bad from the previous year. Using a clean white piece of paper or index card, I make a list (in black ink -- it matters to me for some reason) of all the things I want to leave behind. Bad habits, negative qualities, toxic people and situations... whatever's brought me trouble gets written down. Some years the list is long and very specific; on others it's relatively short and general. This year's was somewhere in the middle.

I seal the list in a clean white envelope and write the year on the front (black ink again), then I gather a large tin can, a bottle of lighter fluid, a book of matches and a dollar bill, and take it all out to the shore of Lake Michigan, which is just a block from my house.

After inserting the envelope in the can and dousing it with lighter fluid, I set it on fire. As it burns, I mentally say goodbye to all the items on my list. Some years it takes a long time for it to turn to ashes. Occasionally it needs to be lit more than once. In the frightened, hopeful world of the superstitious, these things all mean something.

Once the fire has died and the ashes have cooled, I toss them into the lake, being careful not to get any on me. Then I release the dollar bill, as a way of saying thanks for all the good things the year has brought and bringing a bit of good luck to whoever finds it later on.

On my way back home, I get rid of the can somewhere away from the house.

For me, 2008 has been a year of much extended good and only a little bad, all of which arrived in short, sharp doses, and for that I'm grateful. I hope you can at least say the same, or something even better.

Another little ritual I observe is not wishing people a happy new year, but a happy whole year. After all, why should our good wishes for health, happiness and prosperity be limited to just the first few days of January?

Happy whole year.