Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Mount Rushmore of the Mind

Mount Rushmore, as everyone probably knows, was carved to depict the faces of four of the United States' best known presidents. It's a beautiful monument to the history of the nation (I kind of wish I could bring one of those guys back now; I'm not too crazy about either of this year's candidates).

While I physically live in the United States, I spend a good portion of my time, being a writer, in the realms of my imagination. If there is an imagination's equivalent to the men who have guided the progress of a nation, it would have to be the various writers who have inspired and influenced the mind of the particular writer who is now doing the imagining. So, I got to thinking about this:

If I were to erect a Mount Rushmore to honor four, and only four, writers who have had the greatest influence on my imagination and writing career, who would they be? Not neccesarily my favorites, although some might be, but the ones who inspired me most profoundly or perhaps inspired many of those who also inspired me or were so dominant in influencing the genres within which I work that I cannot possibly deny them a place on the mind's monument.

So who would these four titans be? It's not an easy question to answer, but these are the four I would choose right now, after much careful consideration.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I've always been interested in mysteries and those characters who have an uncanny ability to solve them by seeing the truth that eludes the police and less observant bystanders. So, the first face on the monument must belong to the creator of my favorite fictional character of all, Sherlock Holmes. Not only did Doyle make a bigger mark on the detective genre than any other writer, his work led me to seek out the works of others, like Agatha Christie. Several years after the fact, I still can't believe I managed to have a Sherlock Holmes story be my first published work! 

Ian Fleming. If there's a genre I love almost as much as mysteries, it's the spy genre. My introduction to that sort of story (and I think this is true of many people of the last fifty years) came from the James Bond movies. I enjoy all those movies, from the best of the Connery entries to the silliest most gadget-laden of the Roger Moore years, and everything in between. But the best of the films can't compare to the novels that introduced the world to 007. Fleming's writing has a certain flair that's perfect for that kind of story. Bond is such an archetypal character that I think at least a little bit of him slips into almost all the heroic male characters I write about. In the past year, I've finally written my own spy novel, which definitely bears the influence of Fleming. 

Robert E. Howard. Anyone who writes any sort of fantasy or heroism-based adventure owes this man a great debt. Writing during the pulp era, the small amount of money he made from his work is nowhere near what he deserves for almost singlehandedly creating what has come to be known as the sword and sorcery genre. Not only did he create Conan, but he breathed life into at least three other equally interesting but lesser known pulp adventurers: Solomon kane (my personal favorite), Kull, and Bran Mak Morn. Howard also contributed to the mythos created by HP Lovecraft, wrote westerns, boxing stories, "spicy" pulps, and horror tales. Now here's the amazing (and sad) part: Robert E. Howard's immense and incalculably influential body of work was all accomplished by the age of 30, before he fell into a depression and committed suicide. What would he have done if he'd lived to be an old man? I can't even guess!  

H.P. Lovecraft. This is the weird one, but he must be on the mountain. With Doyle, Fleming, and Howard, their works, or works inspired by their writing, have been exerting an influence on my imagination since I was a child. With Lovecraft, things were a little different. I knew his name, but did not actually read any of his work until I was about thirty and already beginning to seriously pursue a writing career. But when I did sample Lovecraft's work, it was as if I shared some part of my mind with him. His way of writing, his imagery, his dreadful hinting at things out of the past or hidden in the deep places of the world or reaching for our minds from the spaces between spaces were familiar to me, as if they matched, or at least closely resembled things I had imagined in either my worst nightmares or most captivating, wonderful dreams since I was a child. There seems to be a similarity of imagination between me and Lovecraft. I don't know if I can explain it any better than that, but I feel at home in the weird worlds he created (or reported?) in his works. The general reaction to Lovecraft's work seems to be either "Yes! I know exactly what he's showing us," or "I don't get it. It's too thick, too different, too strange." I fall into the first camp. I get it. Sometimes it scares me how much I get it! But I wouldn't have it any other way. And now that I've read all his work, I feel his influence even more. 

That's my Mount Rushmore of writers. Which four would you carve into yours?

Monday, October 22, 2012

One Life is Not Enough

Yes, I know today's title sounds like a soap or a Bond movie, but it really does describe what I'm about to discuss.

On her latest blog entry, my friend Malena Lott (publisher of two of the anthologies that have included my stories), wrote about "The Dark Side of Being a Writer" You can find her blog here

In that entry, Malena talked about the negative sides of pursuing a career as a writer: the fact that our ways of thinking might seem abnormal to others, the frequency with which our work is rejected by publishers and editors (even the most successful writers don't sell everything they write), the loneliness of working in solitude, and the fact that most of us make more money at our day jobs that we do writing, yet we feel compelled to keep tapping away on our keyboards day after day and night after night looking for any little victory we can find. Malena really hit a bunch of nails right on the heads in that blog, noting many things that I think most writers feel at one time or another.

Reading that made me get back to thinking about a question I've been meaning to address on my own blog.

Why do we write? In a business where success is unlikely, the odds are against you, and competition, even for the jobs that pay little or nothing, is fierce, what makes us keep writing and writing and sending material out there and promoting our work day after day? Why not just stop, walk away, and do something easier?

It's not that simple. If you have the desire (or perhaps "need" is a better word for it) to write, you can't turn it off like a light switch. That would be like trying to turn off your dreams or your emotions or your need to eat. The need to create stories is part of me as much as my skin or hair or bones. For me, and maybe for many writers, one life is not enough. There's something in us that makes us want to experience not only our own lives, but what it's like to be someone else, or many other people, perhaps whole worlds worth of others.
In every story I've written, there's always one character or several characters, that seem more connected to me than others, as if I'm putting on a mask of that person's life for the time it takes to write part of the story, the whole story, or somewhere in between the part and the whole. But why? Why do writers have this impulse that leads us to become, for a moment or an hour or however long it takes, someone else in our minds?  

I've always had a strong imagination. Looking back on my life, I can see that. As a kid, even as early as three or four years old, I loved stories. I was fascinated by my grandfather's stories of his experiences in World War II (which I now realize were significantly cleaned up) and the bedtime stories my grandmother told me about Dracula and Jack the Ripper (yes, Jack the Ripper! They were gruesome too, although she left out the fact that his victims were prostitutes. I guess I was destined to grow up to be either a writer or a psychopath. Thanks, Grandma!). When I saw a movie or TV show when I was small, it never ended with the closing credits. My mind always kept the story going, coming up with ideas about what might happen to the characters next. When I was old enough to read, I rarely read a book or comic book without imaging further adventures for the heroes.

So my imagination was always there, always powerful, but when did storytelling become something I had to do, something I couldn't live without? As I look back at memories, I see the answer to that. Creativity can sometimes be a necessary response to pain. That's what made it happen.  

I may have developed my imagination early, but it really kicked into high gear when I got old enough to go to school. I had to use it then. It saved me. I was one of those kids who learns easily. I guess that happened because I treated school lessons like any other experience. I didn't see it as work; I just absorbed the information.  So, because I got my work done quickly, I tended to get bored in class. I needed something else to do. I tried to do what I thought was the right thing. I tried to help those who didn't work as quickly as I did. My heart was in the right place and I didn't realize I was breaking the social rules that people in groups tend to develop early in life without even realizing they're doing it. Boy, did that backfire on me! I found myself ostrasized, looked at like I was weird, alien, like there was something wrong with me. I didn't expect that. I was caught off guard. It hurt! (In a way, it hurts just to remember it now, thirty years later.) So what does a kid do in a situation like that? He has to defend himself. Well I couldn't go around punching people. For one thing, I was a scrawny little kid. And I hate violence; I wouldn't want to hurt anyone. So my imagination became my shield. I became someone else. I wasn't the strange one. They were! They were the aliens and I was Captain Kirk exploring their planet and trying to understand their strange customs and behavior. Or maybe I was James Bond infiltrating a lair of SPECTRE agents. They were the Empire and I was a young Jedi waiting for the right time to bring their evil plans crashing down on their heads!

That fantasy world in my head got me through a rather lonely childhood. Of course, it got better. I grew up, gained confidence, realized there really wasn't anything wrong with me at all. I am who I am and that's great. I don't blame those other kids either. They felt what they felt and maybe I did seem weird to them. Years have gone by and some of them are friends of mine now. It's all ancient history.

So that was how my imagination became such an important part of my life, and even after I no longer needed that shield, I couldn't turn it off, nor would I want to.

There's a part of me (and I see the same quality in some of my fellow writers too) that's very much like Peter Pan. I don't want to fully grow up, and I consider myself lucky that I never have! Sure, there's the adult me. I live in the twenty-first century and can look realisitcally at the world around me. I have a good life now and I'm happy about that. I have a house, the best wife any man could want (and she puts up with all my eccentricities!), some money, good friends. But even the best life has its limitiations. I am the age I am now and will only get older; I can't get younger again. There are parts of the world I'll never visit and interesting people I'll never get to meet. I'll never explore an alien planet or be an agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service.......or will I?

That, you see, is the great thing about it. While there are things I've never done and never can do in the body I inhabit in the world I "really" live in, the imagination I've relied on my whole life, and now get paid to use (how awesome is that?), has sent me on some journeys I wouldn't trade for anything. I've solved mysteries on the streets of Victorian London, killed vampires (and had sex with one!), chased Chinese crimelords through the streets of Chicago, found a way to stop a plague of zombies, flown airplanes over Europe in the first world war, saved a gymnasium full of teenagers from an alien invasion, exorcised a haunted Facebook account, saved an alien princess from cannabalistic scavengers, found the Nautilus right where Captain Nemo left it, and done a dozen other things I never could have done if I didn't have the kind of "abnormal" mind that some people accuse writers of having! They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it can also take you where no airplane, automobile, spaceship, or submarine can go. And it gives you the ability to take others along too, as long as they're willing to accept the ride.

As Malena said in her blog entry, writing does have its dark side, and it's a profession that's not for everybody. But for people like me, the price of having to deal with that dark side is worth it. One life certainly is not enough. I want as many as I can get!      

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fathers of the Four Winds, Fill My Sails, Across the Sea of Years

Led Zeppelin. No other band in all the history of music has had such an effect on my life or inspired me more deeply. They literally changed my life.

When I was young, I was a late-bloomer when it came to appreciating music. I was aware of what was popular when I was growing up, but none of it really sang to me, hit me on a deep level, made me want to seek out more. I remember being at my first job and the radio we had on the table would usually be set to the new rock station (this was in the early 90s) and so our background noise was Nirvana and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Those are all fine bands and they have their place and I like them now, but they didn't hit me where it matters. I was kind of immune to the power of music.

Then, one evening when I was working alone (I was about 17 at the time), I changed the station, came across a classic rock channel. Something came out of that radio that sounded different, made me stop what I was doing and just listen. The drums were different, the whole arrangement sounded more unpredictable and interesting than what I was used to, and the voice doing the singing seemed to come from somewhere uninhibited, primal, and free, as if the singer was projecting not from his throat but from the core of his being and didn't care what anyone thought. This music was pure, and it had me hooked.
I learned that this was Led Zeppelin, and I had to hear more. That song, I now know, was "Fool in the Rain," but at the time I didn't know the title. But I had to find it. I went to the record store, looked through the Zeppelin tapes. The thing about Robert Plant's vocals is that until you're used to them, it can somethimes be hard to understand what he's saying. "Fool in the Rain" contains the line, "Light of the love that I've found," but all I could make out was "something-something-Love-something-something" So...I grabbed the cassette that had a song called "Whole Lotta Love" on it, thinking it might be the one. It wasn't, but what I had stumbled onto was something far more than I expected. That was LED ZEPPELIN II, one of the greatest albums in the history of rock.

That was it. Everything changed. Music became an important part of my life. With Zeppelin, I learned to appreciate the blues that had inspired them and also began to branch out into exploring other bands, other genres of music, and the whole world of sound that exists out there. But Zeppelin will always hold a special position in my heart for giving me the gift of music. I bought every one of their albums, and their concerts on VHS, and started exploring the solo albums of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. I even bought a guitar and learned to play it, with Jimmy Page as my primary inspiration. I played for a few years, never got terribly good, and eventually stopped, but it was a memorable experience and I'm glad I did it.

Of course, I never got to see Led Zeppelin in their prime, as drummer John Bonham died and the band broke up more than a decade before I found their music, but I have been lucky enough to see two of their members perform live. I went twice when Page and Plant toured together in the mid 90s, and later saw Jimmy Page when he temporarily joined the Black Crowes. That was an incredible night and the Crowes' drummer, Steve Gorman, did some things on Zeppelin songs that I didn't think anyone but the late John Bonham could do.

Flash forward to 2007: the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, along with Jason Bonham, son of the original drummer, reunited for a full 2 hour concert at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute in London. After hearing how well they performed at that show, I waited and waited for news of the concert coming out on CD or DVD or anything. Finally, just this week, five years after that reunion, a concert film called "Celebration Day" was shown in theatres for two days only in advance of next month's long-awaited DVD and CD release.
Of course I went! It was last night and it was magnificent.

Here is my review of the film:

What I saw last night was three old men becoming young again for two hours. While they are not, and cannot be, what they were in 1975, they performed far beyond what they should be capable of, considering how much time has gone by. I was impressed from start to finish, but especially from about the fourth song up until the very end of the concert.
The first three songs were good, but when "In My Time of Dying" began, everything really kicked in. Page's slide guitar was amazing, and Jason Bonham really started to impress me (that song is always a test of drumming ability as far as I'm concerned).
The first ever live performance of "For Your Life" blew me away and it suddenly seemed as if Robert Plant had forgotten that he was 60 years old. The power of his voice, at that age, is astounding.
"Trampled Underfoot" has never been one of my favorite Zep songs, but tonight it was. That was a masterful performance of the song and John Paul Jones really shined (as he did also on "No Quarter").
"Kashmir" which is one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, was perfect, and Plant's voice impressed me again, especially on that one long howl that he managed to pull off only slightly shorter than in the studio version of 37 years ago.
Considering how rare a Zeppelin show with all three surviving members is, I couldn't have asked for anything better. They played a total of 16 songs. Some were better than others, but none were disappointing. If this turns out to be their last time, what a way to end it!

As for my thoughts on the individuals:
Jason Bonham: Nobody can fill his father's shoes, and I'm glad he didn't go too far in trying to. He solidly backed up his three uncles and did as good a job as anyone could have asked of him. I have no complaints about him at all.
John Paul Jones:  I've come to appreciate him more over the years as I've learned more about the importance of bass and other instruments, and I've realized that he was the glue that held the band's sound together. He was great tonight on both bass and keyboards. And apparently he didn't get the memo about being old either. He looks about 20 years younger than he is.
Jimmy Page: His playing has not been affected by the years at all. His solos and riffs are right on the money. He might look like Yoda now, but he sounds like he did when he was thirty. Anyone who was seeing him for the first time might think he was struggling because of those faces he makes, but that's just how he plays and he's made the same experessions for the past 40 years. He was everything I hoped for and more.
Robert Plant: Wow! Before seeing this, I was a little worried about whether he could keep up with singing those old songs, as his voice has aged. He's adjusted how he uses it on his own recordings in recent years, but those songs of his are much different than the old Zep songs. No, he could not hit notes like he did in his 20s, but he knew exactly when he could gather that power and blast a hole in the walls, and he did! Other times, he used the texture his voice has gained with age and experience to make the songs effective in other ways. It didn't bother me that he shortened a line here or there to make it come out easier. It's like a pitcher who can't always throw a fastball learning a changeup to keep winning. But the old power was still there at a few pivotal moments and I could feel it shake the world like few singers have ever been able to.

When Plant sang the lyrics from Kashmir, "I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been," my eyes filled with tears because I felt like those words were about him and about his bandmates, as they seemed to have reached through time and space and regained the power and ability they had when they were the greatest band in the world.
That concert is a testament to the power of music and how it makes the old young again and how true talent cannot completely dissipate with time.
And one final thing. It was reinforced in my mind yet again how unique Led Zeppelin's sound was. None of the songs they played sound dated. Almost all of them could pop up on the radio today and someone out there might think it was something new. They never followed trends, but always put a timeless quality in their songs that set them apart from almost all other acts. That was demonstrated by the audience in the theatre with me tonight. There were people in their 60s, children of 10, and every age in between. I was happy to be a part of that audience tonight. I normally hate when people clap and cheer in a movie theatre since, unlike a stage show, the people you're applauding can't hear you. But tonight, I clapped as loud as anybody. I couldn't help it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The October Contest

October has always been my favorite month. Something about its arrival adds a spark to my mind, makes my imagination soar. I don't know exactly what the magic of October is, but I've felt that way for as long as I can remember. It could be the end of summer and the cooling of the air, or the sight of the leaves changing color, or maybe the way the night falls earlier and the days leading up to Halloween seem to put that slightly spooky, suspenseful aura in the air, that natural tingle that come somewhere between the end of summer's comfort and the beginning of winter's harsh bite (doesn't it make perfect sense that we, even with our modern conveniences, still celebrate our fear-based holiday at a point in the year when our long-ago ancestors were probably filled with dread and wondering if they would even manage to survive the coming cold season?). I suspect it's really a combination of all those things, but I do love October and all it represents in the life I live now and in my memories of childhood and in the imagination that keeps me dreaming and creating and writing.

Having said all that, the beginning of this October is even better as it coincides with the release of the anthology I mentioned here a few days ago, Something Wicked. This book, my second anthology with Buzz Books, might be the reason some of you are reading my blog today, since this post marks the sixth and final stop on the Something Wicked Blog Tour.

If the blog tour brought you here, welcome! I hope you'll find this post, the other posts here, and my work interesting enough to continue to follow my blog and my books in the future. For those of you who normally read my blog, here's the link to the official contest page that Buzz Books has put up for the release of Something Wicked.

Now, I'd like to share a short piece I wrote recently about what inspired me to write the story that appears in Something Wicked.
When asked to do a story for Buzz Books’ anthology Something Wicked, I had to come up with something worthy of a horror story, something frightening. Of course the old standards of horror crossed my mind: vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and the other usual suspects, but I wanted something different. I had done vampires recently in a novel and had also just finished a short werewolf story. I wanted something new, so I began to think about things in the real world that seem a little strange sometimes, that make me just a bit nervous, that could potentially find a place in a horror tale.         
            Social media won that contest and the story “Spectral Media” was born. “But what’s so scary about social media?” you might ask. Perhaps it’s not so frightening when not turned into what it is in my story, but it is, along with the other means of communication that have come to prominence in recent years, something that has changed the world more than most people might realize, and those changes are something I have very mixed feelings about.
            I suspect that some of the readers of Something Wicked will be too young to remember what it was like to live in a world where every home did not have access to the internet and everyone did not have a phone with them at all times. It was, in many ways, a very different world.
            On one hand, I love the leaps in technology that have been made over the past few years. It’s much harder to get lost, thanks to the GPS. And if we do get lost or have some other problem, there’s no need to look for spare change and find a pay phone. Email makes being a writer a lot easier and the internet makes research faster than ever before. Facebook and other social media systems have changed things too. I’ve reconnected to a lot of people from the various sections of my past. I now know that my second grade teacher is enjoying her retirement, and that the girl I went to the prom with has a wonderful life with her children, and I get to follow the successes of my fellow writers on a daily basis.
            But, at the same time, I can’t help thinking about some of the things that have been lost to the ever-easier means of communication and information gathering in the world. Yes, the GPS is a wonderful thing, but I worry that it takes away the ability to think about directions and figure out the best route without being guided there. Nobody memorizes phone numbers anymore; just add it to your contacts list and don’t worry about it. The convenience of the internet steals the thrill of having to seek out books from the library to gather information on whatever subject I need to learn about to complete my current writing project.
            And most of all, I can’t help noticing the way cell phones, texting, and Facebook have changed the way most people communicate and relate to each other. Nobody has to wait anymore, and I think that takes away some of the thrill of dealing with others.
            Nobody is ever completely out of communication range with anyone else anymore, and that’s not necessarily always a good thing. A friend of mine recently reentered the dating scene after his divorce. He met someone, they went out, had a good time, parted for the night with a kiss, and he drove home, basking in the glow of a date gone well, looking forward to the next time they saw each other, planning to call her the next day. But she started texting him an hour later, which he felt shattered the afterglow of the evening. They went out a few more times, had fun together, but the constant texting when they were physically apart started to become too much for him. The relationship didn’t last long.
            I remember being a teenager and what it was like to see a girl I liked and struggle for what felt like an eternity to get up the nerve to ask her out, to get her number or give her mine, and then wait for the phone call that might or might not come (or find the courage to call her only to find out she wasn’t home!). There had to be waiting, because we only had home phones then. People were sometimes out of reach of each other. Thought had to go into the timing of calling people. The waiting, as the Tom Petty song days, was the hardest part. That waiting no longer exists now. Anybody can be found at any time with a cell phone call, a text, or a Facebook message. The waiting for that call was a hard, sometimes painful thing…but it was a sweet suspense, because it made the moment when the phone did ring so much more precious. When you didn’t constantly talk via text, seeing each other in person was so much more important. Youth is meant to be full of emotional highs and lows and storms of the heart and the mind. Those difficulties are how we grow up, get stronger, and find out who we really are. I can’t help wondering if social media and our other ways of modern communication have altered that part of a person’s life into something that can never quite go back to the way it was. In gaining convenience, have we lost some valuable experiences? If that’s the case, there certainly is something frightening about the whole subject.
            I look at my own Facebook friends list, and I see people from every possible zone of my life: old teachers, relatives, childhood friends, adulthood friends, coworkers, writing colleagues, editors, a few celebrities, old lovers, people I worked in theatre with, people I used to hate but now like because time heals old conflicts, and many others too. Looking at that cast of characters, I can’t help wondering what they’d say about me if they all got together in a room in the real world and compared notes. That’s what “Spectral Media” is about.      

And now, to conclude this blog entry, I'd like to offer a Halloween treat to those who have come to this blog either after purchasing Something Wicked or who plan to purchase it soon.   
One week from today, I will write down the names of all those who leave comments here on this blog entry (so be sure to include your name!), fold up those little pieces of paper, and pick two names out of a fedora. Once those names are chosen, I'll post the names here with a choice of several of my previously published books, from which each winner can choose one book and have a free, signed copy sent to them once they send their address and  a scan or picture of their receipt from  ordering Something Wicked.  

Thanks to everyone who stopped by my blog today. Anyone interested can find most of my books at my Amazon Author page at  

Monday, October 1, 2012

It Comes This Way!

Yesterday marked the release of the latest book to include one of my short stories, Buzz Books' new young adult horror collection, SOMETHING WICKED.  This is my second collaboration with Buzz Books and I'm thrilled to be a part of this project (just in time for Halloween too).

SOMETHING WICKED includes stories by authors Lena Brown, Heather Dearly, Mari Hestekin, Jenny Peterson, Kelly Parra, and me (I keep ending up being the only male in the group, which is fine with me!)

Have you ever thought about what social media (like Facebook) really represents? People, perhaps dozens or even hundreds of them, from all different aspects of your life, have a window into your world that they can gaze through any time they choose. It's as if all these people, some very familiar and some almost strangers to you, are all in the same room, all able to see into your daily life! That's a little weird if you really think about it, maybe even a little scary. That's the premise for my story, "Spectral Media."

I had a great time writing this story and I hope you'll all enjoy reading it and all the other stories in the book. Here are the links you can use to order SOMETHING WICKED.

On Amazon:

Directly from Buzz Books:

For the Amazon Kindle:

For the Barnes & Noble Nook:

And watch this blog for a special post related to this book this coming Saturday!