Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cthulhu in Pirates of the Carribean?!?

Here's a couple of screen caps from the new Pirates of the Carribean movie. It isn't much of a stretch to guess the inspiration for this guy!

Actually, this would more likely be one of August Derleth's Spawn of Cthulhu, rather than Lovecraft's own Cthulhu, but it is still great to see such unspeakable horrors crawling from the icthyan depths into the nightmares of children where they belong.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

CommonPlot: Your Secret Mutant Power

Everyone has a secret mutant power, but few people ever find out. You might be bullet proof. How would you know you aren't if you've never been shot? Some people can be exposed to smallpox and never get sick from it. Others won't get burned when they touch things that are between 1000° and 2000° F, but not below, and not above. Some people will never slip on ice, but only when they are walking on it barefoot. Some people can speak to dinosaurs.

All these powers, and nobody knows they have them because the situation never arises when they might be discovered.

Others use their powers all the time, but their powers are so mundane that they don't notice. Someone might have a time sense, so they know, within fifteen minutes, what time it is, always. Some can hear plants talk, but the mistake it for a ringing in their ears. Another can open any jar, no matter how tightly its been screwed shut.

What is your secret mutant power?

CommonPlot: The One Wish

Everyone gets to make one wish in their lifetime. The catch is, you don't know which one. It could happen any moment. You may have already wasted it unknowingly. That time you said, "Man, am I hungry! I wish I had something to eat!" and then you got something to eat. Or, "I wish it would stop raining!" and then, a short while later, it stopped raining.

Some kids, overreacting to some real or imagined slight, scream at their parents, "I wish you were dead!" Then their parents die and the kid lives with that guilt for years before realizing that they were just kids, and that wish didn't really make their parents die. Only some kids really did wish their parents to death. It really is all their fault.

Some kids wish they'd never been born, but you'd never know it.

What is/was your one wish?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and SciFi

I hated Star Wars before hating Star Wars was cool.

Not just the new movies either. All of them. I should qualify that a little. They're fine, very entertaining movies. They're horrible science fiction though, and they dealt a blow to science fiction that has taken years to recover from. Star Wars made it acceptible, even preferable, for scifi to be stupid. In the Seventies, science fiction in film was reaching a level that only existed in print. It was using the medium to ask fundamental questions about society, the nature of reality and what it means to be human. A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX1138 are some good examples. The only new ground Star Wars broke was in special effects. The story was cliche, the characters stock characters used countless times before. It was essentially pornography with special effects substituted for sex. But it was successful, and every science fiction film that came after it was compared to it. How many, "It's this years Star Wars!!!!" have we seen? As if that is a good thing. So science fiction movies aspired to the lowest common denominator, and most of them still do.

Science fiction on television, however, is striving for greatness. One of the latest success stories, Battlestar Galactica, is no exception. From the creative genius behind Galactica, Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica Blog: "It probably says something about me that I found that very notion to be antithetical to the underpinnings of a decent and democratic society, and I remember the very conscious choice I made in the early stages of this project that while Colonial society was going to be flawed and riddled with problems, that at its base, it was going to be a fundamentally decent and democratic one. It was not going to toss its principles over the side in a time of crisis. It was not going to turn itself into a security-above-all state. There were certain things that mattered more than survival, certain things that mattered more than safety. They were going to hang on to their government and their rights as citizens as best they could under the situation, and would give up those rights and freedoms only grudgingly. "

This is what the best science fiction is all about. It is more than just creating special effects and weird aliens. The best science fiction examines the world in which we live from a perspective that we can only get from sci fi. One could write a column about post 9-11 USA and how, in giving up our freedoms, launching a war of aggression, and accepting the use of torture and so on we become a "security-above-all state," and that there are more important things to hang onto. The people who agree with you already will read it for their personal affirmation, and the rest will ignore it. But Moore shows us a "fictional" society, going through a crisis not completely unlike our own, and shows other possible alternatives for how we might react to the crisis. For all its special effects and melodrama, it still has the "ring of truth." It is a fun house mirror that reflects us. Even if the image is altered, it is still us in the reflection. The best science fiction isn't about a galaxy far, far away. It is about who we are. In the hands of the best creators, like Ron Moore, we only notice this in retrospect.

Friday, November 11, 2005

CommonPlot: The Mummy Variation

Long ago and far away, the princess was raised in isolation from all males. She's being raised to become the bride of the god. She must be kept pure or the god will be offended. What she doesn't realize is that her marriage is also her death.

A young commoner from the villiage sneaks into her palace. They fall in love. He knows that she's going to be sacrificed but doesn't let on. Knowing that only virgins can be given to the god, he thinks that she'll be safe if she isn't one.

Their love is discovered and the boy is murdered in front of her. Since in dying she would go to the god, the priests use their ancient magicks to make her immortal and she's cast out into the world, driven away from her home.

She wanders the world for millenia, looking for the reincarnation of her lost love. Finally, she finds him, but he's a 70 year old Catholic priest.


I wrote this story about 15 years ago. I was trying to come up with more contemporary/realistic "horror," trying to figure out what is really scary. Monsters and psycho killers and such are scary, but not things we encounter regularly. Existential crisis, not understanding the point to existence, the possibility that there is no point, these things were much scarier to me at the time. What if one lived for centuries but were no closer to finding any sort of truth? That was the theme the first time around.

Over time, my immortal girl had forgotten most of the details of her first love, remebering them as facts but not the feelings. She doesn't remember if it was worth it to be punished for all of eternity. In seeking the reincarnation of her lost love she's not so much looking for love as looking to remember and understand. When she meets the priest she remembers that spark she felt so long ago. Even if she can't do anything about it now, she knows that the love was real. Since she's immortal, she can wait for another reincarnation.

I rewrote the story a few years later. That time around, the immortal gal came to terms with her existence after a few centuries. She was able to figure out how to be happy & was really enjoying her immortality. Immortality stories tend to be downers, but I don't think this would neccessarily be the case. You'd learn to cope with the fact that you'd outlive everyone you know and love, but you'd meet new people all the time. You'd have time to fix whatever mistakes you made and so on.

The story was inspired by the classic movie Robot vs. The Aztec Monster, a Mexican Wrestling Women movie, which was a ripoff of Universal's original The Mummy, only with wrestling women and a robot. But the Mummy theme has a unique twist that is different from other horror movies. In most horror movies, extramarital sex is punished by death. In The Mummy it is punished with immortality. In the original Mummy movies, the Mummy changes, subjected to the ravages of time even though he is immortal, while the reincarnated love keeps coming back as the same person (sans memory of her past selves). The "invention" in this version is that the immortal lover stays the same (physically at least) while the reincarnated comes back so radically differnt that there is no way they can resume their prior relationship.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Chaos Magick = Cultural Imperialism?

There've been some interesting discussions going on as to whether chaos magick is a form of cultural imperialism at Key23 and Barbelith. I think it probably is, but that cultural imperialism isn't always a bad thing. Chaos magick essentially says to use whatever parts of other religions and mystical or magical traditions you see fit. It is cultural imperialism in the way that non-Rastafarians sporting dredlocks or rock stars claiming to be Kabbalists are cultural imperialists. On the one hand, there's something vaguely offensive about it, but I'm not sure if finding this offensive is just my "liberal white guilt" talking. I'm culturally and religiously agnostic. I've no icons or anything that I identify as sacred that, if someone else started adopting it as a fashion statement I'd really care about. How would it be to be Jewish and suddenly find everyone wearing yarmalukes because they were fashionable? Would it devalue your own experience of wearing the yarmaluke? Chaos magick is a little different from appropriating other's religious attributes for mere fashion statements. A chaos magician might appropriate the Rastafarian's dredlocks and the faith behind them, and use them to worship Eris instead of Ja.

I can see this as imperialism. I can also see it as remix culture taken a step further. We're all cultural imperialists at some level, appropriating the creations of those before us to serve our current beliefs. Maybe it isn't imperialism at all, just culture.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

CommonPlot: Evil Genius

CommonPlot is an ongoing series of plot ideas, characters, settings and other story elements I'm putting out under the Creative Commons license for everyone to use. Given the current climate of ever expanding Copyright laws that are harmful to society and creativity, and the new nonsense of plot patents, I want to do my small part to keep the world of imagination free and open. Please help!

I was watching the latest Teen Titans last night. They were battling Doctor Light, a supervillian who creates inventions that let him manipulate light. He can make it solid, or turn it into energy blasts or use it in other ways. So I'm wondering, if he's so smart that he can invent stuff like that, why would he be a villain?

The CommonPlot element I'm contributing today is an evil genius character. Not that there's anything new about evil geniuses. The "invention" I'm adding is motivation. Take the example of Art Fry, the man who invented the Post-It note. It made 3M millions, if not billions of dollars. Since Fry was under contract to 3M, they own his invention and he got nothing more than a, "Thanks, Art, what else you got for us?" from 3M.

Lets say someone like Doctor Light came up with a great invention while working for a company. The only way he himself could actually benefit from his invention would be to turn criminal! For a fun twist, he could borrow a costume design of some comic book character in an obscure comic from a company that's been out of business since the 50s, only to discover that it is still copyrighted. So his turn to villiany is based on breach of contract, patent infringement, and copyright violation. These are, of course, gateway crimes, leading to bank robbing, drug traffiking and murder.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Jonathan Carroll is an evil bastard

There's a lot of things I hate, and right now one of them is reviewers who compare authors to other authors. The cover blurb on Jonathan Carroll's White Apples says, "Reading Jonathan Carroll is like watching The X-Files or The Twilight Zone if the episodes were written by Dostoyevsky or Italo Calvino." The quote is from Pat Conroy, author of The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini,(fine books I'll never get around to reading, I'm sure) so he should know better. The amount of useful information in the blurb is close to zero. For reading it to be worthwhile, you have to have seen the Twilight Zone and/or The X-Files and read Dostoyevsky and/or Italo Calvino. Further, you must like all those things, and be intelligent and imaginitive enough to do a mashup in your head of the various styles of those shows and writers. What's more, it forces you to do a qualitative comparison. Dostoyevsky becomes a standard, and Carroll is either "better" or "worse" than him, and that's not particularly useful. Dostoyevsky is historically significant and worth reading in high school & college lit classes, but by contemporary standards he's overly wordy and boring to all but a niche segment of intellectuals (and they're probably just pretending to like him just to make themselves seem more intellectual). 98% of the time when a reviewer compares one author to another, you're learning more about the reviewer than the reviewed. It is a way of saying, "Look at how well read and culturally diverse I am! Plus, I aced those comparison/contrast short answer essay exam questions back in college!"

Comparing Jonathan Carroll to any other writer is useless, and it is taking the easy way out. I can see the impulse to compare him to other's, but that is more an instinctive reaction than anything else. When confronted with something completely unfamiliar, we put try to reframe it in familiar terms. If you can say, "this thing is like that thing I'm familiar with" then it is understandable and controllable and comfortable. But Jonathan Carroll is unique. One might say he's like a fantasy writer gone bad. Not bad in the sense of lacking quality, but bad as in misbehaving. There's rules, written and unwritten, for fantasy writing. For instance Carroll might go a hundred pages into a novel without anything happening that is outside the paramaters of what we recognize as within the realms of everyday possibility. In a fantasy novel, there are characters who are supposed to be alive and others who should die by the end of the novel. If it doesn't happen that way, it should be obvious, so we feel either cathartic release over the tragedy, or a sense of outrage at the unpunished villian, but still be able to leave with our sense of "rightness" unchallenged. With Carroll you really have no idea who'll live and who'll die. There's no predictability. There's not even predicatable unpredictability. You can be half a page from the end of a novel, and still have no idea how it is going to end.

But then, saying Carroll breaks the rules is still wrong, because that implies that he's some sort of reactionary or radical. He's more like, well the new darlings of the artsy elite are the "naive" or "outsider" artists. These are artists who either have some sort of mental disorder, or are so far outside of standard culture that their artwork isn't influenced by any other artist, and their work is truly original, or something. Their work "breaks the rules" but then it doesn't because they never knew, or are incapable of knowing the rules in the first place. Carroll writes fantasy like a "naive" or "outsider," like he's never been exposed to fantasy before and never knew there were rules. But that's still wrong, because fantasy written by someone who isn't well-read in fantasy tends to be awful because they don't know what is cliché and what is worth emulating, and Carroll knows very well what makes good fantasy.

Maybe Carroll's indescribability is what keeps him labeled as a "cult writer," a condescending term he's been stuck with for more than twenty years now. I'm not sure what that means, exactly. Perhaps it means a writer with a small but rabid fan base who never makes it "big." His books are guaranteed to sell enough to be worth publishing, but don't sell enough to be considered "best-sellers." Meanwhile, it is too intellectual and unconventional to be popular with the mainstream, but has that fantasy label keeping his work from recieving the critical attention it deserves.

Screw it. Don't read any reviews. Forget everything I've said here. Just read his books with an open mind, and know that you're cooler than anyone who hasn't read him before. You can find a number his books at Book Closeouts. I picked up 5 of his novels there for about $20, total. Go read him now.

Monday, October 24, 2005

story artefact: stones in the water

Here's an idea I like, but will probably never get around to using, so this is Creative Commons Share Alike. Use it freely if you want.

A lot of shops around coastal tourist spots sell these little souveniers that you may have seen. They're a clam, oyster or muscle shells that have been cleaned out of their original occupants. They're taped back together with a thin strip of paper. You drop it in a glass of water and the strip dissolves and the shell opens and a little flower made of paper and string floats up out of the shell.

In this story, an ancient Chinese (well, it doesn't need to be Chinese, any country that has been along to have ancient forgotten arts will do) craftsman made the most exquisite of these flowers, the most beautiful the world has ever seen. Only instead of making them out of shells, he disguised them as rocks. The rocks were completely convincing. There was no way to tell by looking at them that they were anything but rocks until they were dissolved in water, wherupon they would split

Today these rock sell for incredible prices, but the one thing that makes them valuable, the artwork inside them, can never be seen because actually dissolving them in water would destroy their value.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Anansi Boys

Good Morning, Spider!

Just finished Neil Gaiman's latest, Anansi Boys. I'm slipping because it was out for a whole week before I actually got my hands on a copy. Shows you how busy I've been! Fortunately it was pouring rain and cold out all weekend, and I didn't have anywhere to be so I just stayed curled up on the bed with the cats and read the whole book in one sitting.

That's about all I'm going to say about it. Part of the joy of reading Neil Gaiman's work is the fun of the suprise of it, and I don't want to take that away from you. Although even if I told you, it isn't that cheesy, "Oh crap, the dude's a chick!" or "You mean he's been dead this whole time?" or "What? You mean to tell me it was just a SLED?" kind of gimmick suprise that the plot hinges on. Gaiman's suprises are much more artfully crafted than that.

There's a saying to the effect of, "If you show the gun in act one, it has to go off by act three." For the average writer, the suprise twist would be that the gun didn't go off after all. For Gaiman, the gun would wind up in a yard sale, to be bought by someone who is suicidal, who then exchanges it in a guns-for-toys program, and then gives the toy to an unhappy child in hopes that the child will remember this act of kindness and not have to feel the same way he does when he gets older.

But even that isn't right. Even if his books were without suprises, gripping plots and compelling characters, they'd still be worth reading because his writing is so well crafted, his phrases so beautifully turned, that just the sound of the words put together would make the reading worthwhile.

Which is all just to say read Anansi Boys and everything else Gaiman has ever written. You won't be dissappointed.

Hard Case Crime

Hard Case Crime is a new publishing house devoted to publishing oldschool paperback crime novels. As a fan of the originals, this is great news! The covers are to die for. I hope that Hard Case Crime realize how good they are and makes them available as prints. They're reprinting old classics, and also attracting some great contemporary writers. The idea was fun enough for Stephen King to write his own, The Colorado Kid. Major cool points to Mr. King for writing a direct-to-paperback pulp, just for fun! I just finished The Colorado Kid, and it was a suprise. I was expecting something more, I don't know, hard boiled pulp fictiony. It was a whole lot more quiet and sensitive. I don't want to say too much about it because I don't want to spoil it. It is definitely a recommended read. It reminded me a lot of what I was saying about Hannah and about the burning baby in Milo, Maine. I guess that shouldn't be suprising. Stephen King, for all his money, still chooses to live in the "real" Maine, away from the tourist towns, where things like the events in The Colorado Kid actually happen. More cool points for The King.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

lightning and lightning bugs

Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug." Actually, he really said "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." But I think the words in the oft-used misquotation are "more right." But I digress because I want to talk about Jonathan Carroll who uses more of the right words than anybody.

I've never read his novels, but after reading his blog I'm going to. He writes snapshots of the things he sees or hears about during his day. Nothing earth-shaking or outrageous, but he writes with such strength and clarity. Always using just the right words and just enough of them. Minimal and beautiful like the finest Japanese watercolors. Not a lightning bug in sight.

Go to him. Now.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lovecraft Country!

So great to see others making the H. P. Lovecraft/Creative Commons connection. Visit where you'll find a CC licensed online comic based on Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

In reading their "Pretend as if Nothing is Wrong" essay, I wonder if Joss Whedon's Sunnydale was inspired by Lovecraft's Arkham. Here's a town where people routinely dissappear, go insane, are eaten by monsters and so on, and yet everyone acts like none of this is happening. At the local Miskatonic University professors routinely go on trips to obscure parts of the world and come back raving lunatics, if they come back at all, and yet, as in Buffy, nobody makes a big deal of it. Or maybe this is really how people would act to the presence of such horrors in their lives. Like the baby burning in Milo, Maine where life goes on and everything is just routine.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

fun with conspiracy!

Conspiracies are fun and I was into them long before the X Files made them popular. Not that I feel any resentment toward the X Files. Quite the contrary. It made "paranoid conspriacy theory" part of the common vernacular, so now people know what I'm talking about when I use that term.

Do I actually believe in conspiracy theories? Well, it is pretty obvious that a whole lot is going on that the general public isn't aware of, but I'm not sure it really matters. I know that I'm not in charge. Whether ultimately the U. S. Government is in charge, or the Trilateral Commision or the Illuminati who are calling the shots my social status doesn't change. Conversely, regardless of who is "calling the shots" in the big picture, I am still responsible for my own life and my own happiness, and how I effect the people and the world around me.

Conspiracy theories, when you look at them this way, can be a whole lot of fun! What is even more fun is to create your own.

Here's How:

Step One: Pick a topic. It should be somewhat controversial and familiar to most people.

Step Two: Look for the obvious answers. What are the publically accepted explanations for the matter at hand?

Step Three: Find the gaping holes in the obvious answers.

Step Four: Come up with a more logical answer.

Take, for example, the current controversy over same-sex marriage.

The obvious reasons for people to be opposed to this are religious. Religious reasons don't hold up, though. First off, we'd have to accept the idea that there are sufficient numbers of people who sincerely believe that what goes on between consenting adults who aren't them is something that concerns them. Further, we'd have to believe that there are significant numbers of people who believe that their religious views should be legally forced on those who hold different views. It just seems absurd that in a country known for its freedom-loving people that there would be enough people supporting such anti-American sentiments for an anti-same-sex marriage movement to exist. Finally, even if the first two conditions could be met in 21st century US of A, it still wouldn't make sense. If one were to seek to impose one's religious values on those who don't share them, why would you pick some obscure rule from one of the more random parts of the Bible? Why wouldn't you seek to enforce the most important laws of all, the Ten Commandments? I myself have broken the Second Commandment thousands of times:

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

The confusing word here is "graven" which means sculpted or engraved, or pressed into, basically creating art of anything specific rather than a meaningless decorative pattern. Basically, it is a sin to create an image of anything. "Graven" covered the image-generating technology of the time. Today this would also include photography, television and the like. It is the SECOND FREAKING COMMANDMENT and only the Amish and Mennonites obey it. I don't see anyone from the religious right trying to prohibit people from creating images. Or from working on Sundays (4th commandment) or taking the name of the Lord in vain (3rd commandment). I mean, seriously, the Ten Commandments are the cornerstones of the faith! Ignoring these while promoting the more minor rules seems, well, illogical.

The more logical answer: The gay and lesbian status quo is an ideal target market. Why? Because same-sex couples are more likely to be DINKs (marketing jargon for Dual Income, No Kids). Being a DINK means that you have more disposable income because you aren't saving up for your children's college education, paying for baby sitters and so on. The significance of DINKs shouldn't be underestimated. Ogunquit, Maine, a town long known as a gay tourist destination, decided that it wanted to start appealing to mixed-sex married couples with children (an antiquated version of "family"). They were successful but it hurt the local economy. The families came, they looked around, hung out, spent time at the beach. But they didn't spend money like the gays did!

Same-sex marriage is a slippery slope. Once that happens, same-sex couples will start taking on all the attributes of breeder couples. And they'll start saving their money! Can the economy really afford to lose the income of ten percent of the population?

So there really are legitimate economic reasons for supressing the rights of others. There may be some people who believe it is their duty to do so for religious reasons, but such people are obviously ignorant sheep. Obviously, because to believe this you'd have to be illiterate and/or lazy, either unable or unwilling to read the Bible but quite willing to follow what someone else tells you it says. Such people wouldn't have the intelligence or initiative to actually do anything to prohibit same-sex marriage. Someone intelligent enough to do so would also see the inherent illogic and hypocrisy of the religious arguments against same-sex marriage, so it wouldn't be a motivating factor.

The only logical answer is that the sheep are being used by the economists to promote their hidden agenda of maintaining an important target market. Obviously.

See how this conspiracy theory thing works? Now you try!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

momentary lightness

Realizing that this blog is just way to heavy, I've decided to take a momentary shot at levity and humor.

I swear this is a true story. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent (specifically, me, from getting sued). This is one of those things that I can't really find literary inspiration in because if I actually put it in a work of fiction, it would stretch the willful suspension of disbelief too far.

I met Steph her freshman year in college (this was back before schools started calling them "first year students" to give the appearance of increased gender equity without having to make any real change. My response to this was to start calling them "persons of fresh" because "first year student" is just ugly and awkward). I was a much more worldly second year freshman, my first year of college not having gone so well. I was co-editor of a literary magazine called Unbridled Lust! to which Steph had submitted poetry to. I told her I liked her work and she followed me around for days after that.

I have a frustrating blind spot. While I normally consider myself an astute observer of humans, I have absolutely no idea what people think of me most of the time. It is only with that 20/20 hindsight that I say, oh, Goddammit! I could have gotten laid! That hindsight usually only comes years after the fact also, when it is far too late to do anything useful with the information and I can only frustratedly ponder what the experience might have been like. So when a friend told me, "Dude, Steph is totally into you. You should totally go for it," I thought he was totally crazy because Steph was clearly interested in the magazine, not me. Steph got bored with my inaction and moved on before I realized my friend was right.

Years later, I realized Steph wasn't interested in the magazine at all. At that point, though, it had been a couple years since I'd last seen or even thought of her. Then I couldn't help but be reminded of her because she was all over the news. She'd been shot! She was walking out in the woods and got too close to a shooting range and got shot in the chest. Had the bullet gone half an inch further it would have hit her heart. Like a Reader's Digest Drama in Real Life, she walked back to civilzation on her own and survived.

A little known fact: women who survive gunshot wounds to the chest are sexy.

Suddenly I remembered Steph and realized that she really had wanted, um, involvement those years back. And then I accidentally ran across her on campus after she'd gotten out of the hospital. The bullet was still inside her! It was safer to leave it where it was, for some reason, than to cut it out. Which just made her all the sexier. She had a boyfriend, though. At this period in my life I cared about such boundaries, so I was left wondering, again...

Years later I was writing computer books and had an office in Portland's beautiful scenic Old Port area. This was before I realized just how much writing computer books sucked, so at the time I felt like a rising star. This book was going to make a ton of money and establish my reputation in the field and better and more lucrative books would follow. It didn't quite work out that way, though, but at the time I didn't know that. All I knew was that I was a Writer (the capital meaning I was actually getting paid for it). And I'm strutting down the street, going to get a double cappucino at Arabica and who do I run into but Steph? She's just moved to Portland. I invited her out to dinner on the spot.

She showed up to dinner with her boyfriend, Phil, which was a bit of a dissapointment. She also had her sister, uh, Becky, in tow. Her sister didn't have a boyfriend. She did, however, have blond hair and big breasts and while I'm usually not such a "typical male" (I hope) well, I sometimes I just can't help myself. If I couldn't have sex with Steph, at least I could vicariously have it with her sister.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. One of the worst mistakes I've ever made. Worst. Relationship. Ever. But that is a long and boring story for another day. This story is about Steph.

Even if I wasn't dating her, I was able to acquire some of the caché for that shot-in-the-chest thing amongst my drinking buddies. Steph loved the attention that getting shot got her, so if I brought her out drinking with us, I knew I could get her to pull down her shirt and show off her scar. The bullet had gone in right between her breasts, way down, so showing it off meant giving a discreet peep-show as well. This wonderful combo of sex and violence always won props from my friends.

A few months into my relationship with Becky, Steph went crazy. Now, I've had my own share of extreme existential crises, so I'm really not one to be making fun of others for having them, but Steph, well, I just can't help it.

Steph started questioning her sexuality. Most people do. It can be a very healthy thing. What most people don't do is go through such extreme lengths to make sure everyone knows it. The crux of of it was something like this: "I think I'm a lesbian, but I still love Phil..." Okay, so you think you're a lesbian. Try dating women and see if you like it. Your friends and family have made it clear to you that they'll love you and be there for you no matter what, so there's no pressure from them, either way. But no. Steph spends day, weeks, howling. I guess she was crying, but the sound she made... My friend Mark used to have a dog who you could get to make a noise that sounded something like, "I love you," by howling "I love you," at it. That's what Steph sounded like. That noise we made trying to get the dog to say human words.

At first it was tragic and we all felt very sympathetic to Steph in her hour of need. But it just went on for so long. Becky and I would be hiding in her room pretending to have sex so that we wouldn't have to listen to Steph repeat her mantra of "I think I'm a lesbian but I love Phil" over and over. Steph could spend endless hours explaining this to you, but it all came down to finding new ways of saying the same sentance over and over. Sometimes Becky would give me money so I could take Steph out to lunch and a movie so she wouldn't have to deal with her for a while. And when we were out, invariably someone (didn't matter if it was friend, acquantance or stranger) would say, "Hey, how ya doin?" to which Steph would respond, "Well... not so good... I think I'm a lesbian, but I still love my boyfriend Phil..."

FINALLY Steph decided to do something besides cry. She broke up with Phil so she could be free to explore her new lesbianism. Something she did by sleeping with a whole bunch of random guys. Once she called home to announce she wasn't coming home for a while. She was going to Graceland with Donnie Posiedon, some guy she just met.

Then one day she announced she was all better. She'd had sex with a woman and decided she wasn't really a lesbian after all.

Come to find out, she'd actually taken part in a three-way with her housemate's boss and his girlfriend. When I told this to my friend Michel, a "real" lesbian, her reaction was, "She what? After a three-way? That's like deciding you're not a lesbian after watching an episode of Ellen!"

Last I knew Steph and Phil were still together. Though there was a lot of tension about that 3-way thing. That had been one of his long-time fantasies, and then she went and had one with someone else. Not sure if he knew about Donnie Posiedon though. That would have burned me more than the 3-way. But then, going to Graceland has been my long-time fantasy, so if a girlfriend broke up with me and went there with someone else, well... I guess it would be worse if she went to Legoland with him, though...

Okay, well I guess that's not the funniest thing in the world and maybe I should stick with dark and depressing. Guess you'd have to have been there...

Friday, July 29, 2005

episode four: director's commentary

SPOILER ALERT: read Episode 4 before reading this!

It is the sound of loneliness. The whistle on the AM radio as he slowly turns the dial left to right to left again, trying to find a human voice. I wonder how many people actually hear this these days? I don't think there are many analog radio dials anymore, and not many people listening to AM. There really is a creepy, lonely, electronic whistle when you're not quite tuned into a station. At night you really can pull in radio stations from distant cities. I used to spend hours turning the dial, looking for those distant human voices. Riding in the back seat of the car on a cold winter night with my dad trying to find the radio station that belonged to that tower in the distance is one of my earliest memories. We were just driving north to my granparents back then. Just a three hour trip but that's an eternity when you're just a few years old.

“This is for Bobbie!” the man screamed, pulling a knife from his jacket and driving it into the professor’s belly. This actually happened in my Psych 100 class! Well, sort of. They guy just made a lot of noise and said weird things and staggered out of the room. The point was the same. 120 witnesses all saw a completely different event. I guess in the past they actually shot the professor with blanks, but the event was just too traumatic for students and they didn't want to risk lawsuits and they had to tone it down.

“Well, he wasn’t wearing them but he usually does. You could tell by the dents on the sides of his nose.” Milo's ability to remember details about a person is inspired by a story I read about A. Conan Doyle. What few people realize is that Sherlock Holmes was actually inspired by a real person, a professor of Doyle's, who could just glance at a person and tell what they did for work, what their habits were and so on, all from their calluses and the wear of their clothes and such.

I put a song in my head, Gonna dress you up in Mylar/All over your body. Madonna’s inane lyrics stick like molasses and are almost impossible to get rid of. Yes, I know these are not the lyrics to the song. Milo hates Madonna so much that he can't bring himself to sing the lyrics right, even in his own head.

“What do you know about the history of the world?” There are a whole lot of lines throughout Castles that are actually taken from the lyrics of 80's alt rock songs. One of the best of these songs is The History of the World, Part I by The Damned which is actually a big inspiration for this whole thing:

No one alive and no one left
Nobody cares or ain't you heard
Looks like I'll take my dying breath
In the history of the world

There's some foreshadowing there, but I'm not going to say any more.

It is as if all history was caused by a few hundred kings and generals and presidents, and the occasional scientist of two. It really flabbergasts me that to this day most people don't even give a second thought to what history is. The sum total of human experience has been reduced to what can be tested on multiple-choice fill in the oval with a number two pencil exam, with propaganda and lies mixed in.

Grampa pulled something from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a ring. On it was an emblem I’d never seen before. It had a circle at the center, and from it radiated eight arrows, almost like a compass rose. “This is our sigil. The sign of the 27th letter, and the invisible helping hand." My friend Dustin Ruoff has this same ring. He bought it because he thought it was cool, even though he had no idea what it meant. I'm not sure who was the first to use this symbol. It figures prominently in many of Michael Moorcock's works as the symbol for Chaos, and is used by Peter J. Carroll in his text Liber Kaos as a representation of the five dimensions of Chaos Magic Theory. I don't know if Carroll was inspired by Moorcock, or if Moorcock was inspired by Chaos Magicians, or if the similarities are just coincidental (I know, I know... there are no coincidences...). I'm using it in both the Carroll and Moorcockian sense, and its appearance here is a special treat to the followers of either. Understanding that this is a symbol of Chaos is not critical to the narrative. However, if you are a fan of Moorcock, then you might be wondering if Grampa's motives are perhaps a little more sinister than Milo realizes, and if you're a Chaos Magician you'd either be getting jazzed or pissed off at the idea of a Chaos Magic action hero...

The 27th letter idea comes from The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, though he borrows heavily from everywhere so I doubt that he was the first to come up with it. I love the idea of there being letters in our alphabet that nobody knows about. Our language dictates what we're able to think about. In Spanish, for instance, there are verb tenses that we don't have in English. Spanish speakers can think about timein ways that English speakers can't. So if we had extra letters, we'd have new words, new meanings, new ways to think of things. The "invisible helping hand" comes from Adam Smith, a 1700s philosopher that believed that a free market was the solution to the worlds problems, and the "invisible hand" of enlightened self-interest would make people act to the benefit of society even when they were acting completely selfishly. I loved the idea of mashing Morrison together with one of the fathers of modern Capitalism.

“The Cure... Depeche Mode... Hüsker Dü... have you heard their latest album? It fucking rocks! I’ll bring it over. At least you’ve got good taste in music! Alright, here we go.” He pulled an album off the shelf. It wasn’t one I’d expect. Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall. Another "treat" for people in-the-know. Castles is set in the early eighties. However, there is nothing about the story being in the eighties that is critical to the narrative, so I don't call a whole lot of attention to it since it isn't important now (it will be if I ever get around to writing the sequels!). However, if you were a fan of bands like The Cure when they first came out and you were buying them on vinyl, you'd know exactly when this story took place, and you'd be one of the "elite". I got this idea from Joss Whedon. In shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, he's always putting in little references to things that maybe 1% of the audience will get. Like the scene in the final episode of Buffy where they're playing D&D and Andrew calls the dragon he's attacking the other players with, "Trogdor the Burninator". If you're a fan of Homestar Runner you know exactly who Trogdor is and find this hysterical. If you aren't you probably didn't even notice it. I love these little "treats" though. It makes me realize that there are people out there who are every bit as much of a geek as I am.

Oh, and everything Syd says about Judy Garland is true, by the way.

I’ll bring Zhang Yongwei over. He’s been teaching me. He’s like 2 dan which is really high for someone his age. Don’t call it Go though. Call it Wei Qi. He’s very touchy about the Japanese and says they stole everything good about their culture from the Chinese. It is standard for Chinese to use both first and last names when refering to somebody. Hating the Japanese for stealing their culture is also common, and not altogether unjustified.

There are two kinds of students who come to a school like this. Kids who can’t afford to go anywhere else, and kids who get sent here by their parents because they think it will get them away from the drugs, or whatever else they think they need to get their kids away from. This was my perception of the University of Maine, Orono, when I was a freshman there. I'm sure that this is true of a number of colleges. It isn't altogether innacurate. At the time, however, I was a lot more cynical than I am now. I didn't realize that there was a third group, those who were there because they love Maine and love their families and want to stay close to them. Back then I just felt trapped.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

episode four: secret origins: Golda

They say that "any similarity to persons living or dead is completely coincidental" and that's all bullshit. For it to be true the author would have had to have grown up in a complete vacuum, with no exposure to another human, ever. Any fictional creation is an amalgam of people the author has known, or read about, or seen on TV. I suppose that some mega-genius author might be able to spontaneously generate characters that are completely original and in no way inspired by anyone or anything outside the author's imagination. If a writer told me that this was the case with them I'd be more likely to consider them to be lying or deluded.

That said, I've never actually "met" Grampa or Milo. This is to say, they are a mix of so many people that I can't put my finger on any attribute that makes them like one specific person. Golda, on the other hand...

Her name was Martha. She was "the new girl" at my high school. She didn't dress fashionably and she wasn't skinny. She was also from Talmar Wood, Orono's low-income housing development. Being from Talmar was a social and academic death-sentance at the highly cliquey and heavily tracked Orono High. She was the kind of girl who boys shoot spitballs at to see if they can get a reaction, and when she doesn't react, they shoot more. I didn't shoot spitballs, but I didn't do anything to stop it either, and I felt guilty about that, but better her than me, I thought. She was so quiet I had no idea if she was really shy or actually "challenged." I never bothered to find out. She was from Talmar, after all.

That summer I worked in the cafeteria at the University. Martha was one of my customers. She was attending the University as part of the Upward Bound program. She was a different Martha. She had an entourage of people who followed her around and laughed at her jokes. She seemed the exact opposite of the person she was in school. I saw her on campus when I was biking home from work one day and stopped to talk. Her face was tan but her laugh lines were still pale. She smiled so much that they never got the chance to tan. Her face was covered with fine blond hair. They call it lanugo on babies, but it is supposed to fall off shortly after birth. It was so fine that it was invisible ordinarily, but if you were close enough and the sun was shining on her face, it was as if the sunlight caught there and played above her skin.

We hung out together during her breaks from the Upward Bound program. She was witty, intelligent, worldly, beautiful. I was enthralled. It wasn't my first crush, but it was the first time I ever got close enough to actually talk to the object of my infatuation. She was one of the first girls I ever touched, though it was never anything more than a kiss.

It was the first time I ever got the "You want too much from me," line. Sadly, it wouldn't be the last. There are three lines used to terminate potentially amorous advances, and if you've ever used them you should feel ashamed. "I really think of you as a friend," is a classic. How do argue with that? So the people you date aren't friends? Okay, I'll promise I won't be there when you need me. I won't listen to you or do anything nice for you, ever. "You're too good for me." Oh, no I'm not. I'm horrible. I'm a worthless piece of shit. I'm every bit as lousy as you are... "You want too much." At the time I wasn't aware of wanting anything from Martha. It was confusing and heartbreaking and I had no idea how to change myself to be the person she wanted. Of course I had very little experience with other humans at that point. There was lots I didn't understand.

There's a rare kind of cancer that only affects the males in the family. In the space of a few years Martha's father and brothers died from this cancer. Can you imagine what this would have been like for a teenage girl? For anyone? Seeing the people you love die a painful, horrible death, only it doesn't end there. The financial ruin forcing you to live in Talmar, the worst part of a mediocre town that looks down on you just because of where you live. To go from a school where you are popular and have friends to one where shitheads shoot spitballs at the back of your head all day every day...

Did I want to much? It doesn't matter. Martha was going through things I couldn't comprehend at the time. While I like to think I could have been loving and supportive and helped her through that painful time the truth was I was immature and selfish back then, and what should have been a lifelong friendship ended stupidly.

I have no idea where she is now. Last time I saw her she was self-destructing spectacularly. Last time I heard of her she was in Las Vegas. She didn't come to the 10-year high school reunion. Not that that is a suprise. Orono wasn't very nice to her.

So Golda is a Martha from a parallel Earth where the bad things never happened, where her parents grew old together and her brothers' kids can't wait to go play with their favorite aunt. I hope the Martha of this world is happy & healthy, wherever she is. She deserves it.

episode four now online

Get it while it's hot!

Initially I'd planned on doing 10 chapters, 10 pages each, double-spaced. Only I forgot to double-space so I wound up writing a lot more than I intended. By the fourth chapter, the story had taken over and was telling me how many pages to write, instead of the artificial, arbitrary limits I'd set before. I stopped fighting it and the tale became a lot more compelling, with new characters, more background, interesting and unexpected (even to me) twists. Enjoy!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Words of Wisdom from Raymond Chandler

From Raymond Chandler's "Notes on the Mystery Story":

"A mystery serial does not make a good mystery novel. The "curtains" depend for their effect on your not having the next chapter to read at once. In book form these curtains give the effect of a false suspense and tend to be merely irritating."

Wish I'd read that earlier. In trying to rewrite Castles into a novel I found that to make it work it would have required huge amounts of revisions. It all makes sense now.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Castles: Now Creative Commons Licensed!

I just marked up the Castles site with a Creative Commons license (attribute, non-commercial, share-alike). Download, redistribute, rewrite the content you find here freely, with my blessing. The Creative Commons are one of the most important groups working in the world today for reasons I won't get into right here, right now.

There are a number of reasons I chose the CC license. I think people have gotten very weird about creativity. Not too long ago people believed in spontaneous generation, or abiogenesis. That is, that things like maggots came to exist spontaneously in rotting meat out of nowhere, and so on. Current copyright law seems to rely on some mythic form of "originality," that new ideas can generate from nothingness, and not be derived from anything that has existed before.

Oh, please!

Look at Done Deal and tell find me one truly original script that has been sold. Listen to any song in the Top 40 and find me one idea that hasn't been expressed before in a thousand other songs. Of course there are a few geniuses, an occasional visionary who says something new, creates something no one has ever seen before, but these are incredibly rare. The rest of us just re-interperet the work of those who came before us. Anyone who tells you different is either lying or deluded.

This isn't a bad thing. It is who we are. Culture exists through the transmission of ideas. If we weren't reusing and remixing the work that has been done before, civilization would cease.

In Castles, I've tried to be as new and original as possible, but I'm no visionary. Many of the ideas are based on extensive research and anyone with access to a library and the Internet could have come up with the same ideas. On the remote chance that I'm the first person to put together these ideas this way, should I now say, "No, you don't repeat any of these ideas to anyone." Other ideas are conclusions I've come to based on observable evidence that anyone else could have come to also. Should I keep these ideas locked away, too? Other parts were inspired by every book I've read and loved, and I consider the book an homage to the writers who made me love reading. A number of them are actually mentioned in the book. While I hope that there's nothing in the book that is specifically like any author, I suspect my writing style is a montage of everyone I've ever read.

I write because I have something to say that I feel is important. I hope that people find my ideas worth repeating and worth developing. At the same time, I've worked really hard on this, and if someone find that these words have monetary value, I want a cut! The Creative Commons license lets both things happen.

Finally, I'm doing it for H. P. Lovecraft. He just might be an early American "Creative Common." He encouraged others to take his ideas and run with them. As a result, almost every horror writer of the 20th Century (probably the 21st, too) has written novels and stories that fit withing Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos." Many movies too, including my favorites, the Evil Dead trilogy. Would Lovecraft have had such a lasting impact if he hadn't shared his universe?

Castles is my first novel, and while I don't think there's enough there to warrant a "Mythos," hopefully by the 50th novel, I'll have created such a vibrant and well-realized universe that others will want to create characters to inhabit it and new stories to perpetuate its history. The Creative Commons license seems like a great way to help make this possible.

Plus, I love the new "developing nations" CC license, allowing commercial versions of my work in developing countries. I think Castles would make a great soap opera. I used to be a big fan of Mexican soap operas when I lived in Portsmouth and got the Spanish station. They seemed like such better quality than American soap operas. Castles could be a sort of Dark Shadows crossed with Mexican soap opera thing. How cool would that be?

episode three submitted for your approval

Well, it was a heck of a long time getting that one up there! If you've been paying attention to 100 Cups of Coffee, you know why it took so long. And I'd intended for the chapters to come out weekly! I've got to get it in gear if I'm going to finish the 50 novels I'd planned on writing. Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first novel at age 36 and wrote 50 during his lifetime, so that's my new benchmark.

Chapter 3 is where the story really starts taking off. It makes me realize how much rewriting I have to do to the first two chapters, still. If you've stuck with it for the first two chapters, here's where it starts paying off. Enjoy!

Friday, July 01, 2005

the worst thing

Some things are so terrible that if you wrote about them as fiction you'd exceed the reader's willful suspension of disbelief. People just couldn't possibly do things like that in real life, could they?

They do.

If I hadn't met the boy myself, I might not have believed it.

The boy was a prisoner in the juvenile jail I used to work at. Those weren't the terms they used, though. He wasn't a prisoner, he was a "resident." And it wasn't a jail but a "Youth Development Center." Those euphemisms are lies, though. The "development center" was still punishment based, as if you beat someone down enough they'll somehow become better people.

But how much punishment does it take to correct what happened to this kid?

When he was younger his father nailed him to the floor. It made it easier for the father to rape his son. That isn't a figurative "nailing" but literally, his father drove nails through his hands and feet into the floor to that he couldn't stuggle, couldn't get away.

Things like that can't possibly happen though, can they? Not in real life....

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Strange Maine: Milo

People "from away" often get a very skewed impression of this state. "From away" includes not just people from other states, but people living in the Greater Portland Area (Maine's largest city) and points south. Those people may live within the same official map borders, but the Maine they inhabit is so different from the rest of the state that it might as well be a different country. In fact, for many people living in Maine, the state only exists south of where they live. They never travel north. They never think about what goes on north of where they live. Case in point: the Learning Results is a set of standards that teachers are supposed to ensure their students meet. There are standards on the Learning Results that involve going to museums. There are plenty of museums in Portland and in Augusta, the state capital, but for the majority of students in Maine the nearest museum is hours away.

If people "from away" do happen to travel north of Portland, the go to places like Camden or Bar Harbor, relatively prosperous tourist towns. There the locals are going to be nice to you even if they hate you because they need the tourist dollars, and the local officials go out of their way to make the towns look and feel the way the tourists expect them to look and feel. In Camden it is illegal to paint your house any color but white, for example (unless you're MBNA and have enough money to bribe the local officials to look the other way as you're demolishing historic houses and painting them the corporate green and gray). Or else they go to the more uninhabited parts of the state on camping trips. Either way, what people are seeing is representative of only a small fraction of the state. What they're seeing is an idyllic fantasy of "the way life should be."

There's another Maine. People from away don't realize just how much Stephen King isn't making up in his books. Take Milo, Maine for example. If you were just driving through you'd see a pretty little town on the river. "Quaint" is the word that people from away use to describe towns like this. People from here hate that word and find it condescending and insulting. If you actually took the time to stop in Milo you'd notice that almost the entire downtown has been abandoned. Nearly all the stores are empty. All the factories that once supported Milo have closed down. The nearest population center where someone might find a job is Bangor, an hour away, where unemployment is also high and one would be lucky to find a minimum wage service job. There have been no jobs in the Milo area for so long that being on welfare is now the norm, and a large percentage of people will actually look down on you for having a job, for "putting on airs," or whatever. So here amongst this idyllic natural beauty that really does exist throughout so much of Maine, there's a hopelessness and despair. The jobs left. They aren't coming back. If kids grow up with any aspirations at all, it is to get out of town as soon as they can.

But there's more than just a depressed economy. Milo is the unofficial marijuana capital of Maine, where the majority of pot is grown. In Milo, there are police officers shacking up with high school students (I guess they aren't going to arrest themselves for statutory rape). Milo is the birthplace of the KKK.

Last year a man burned a baby along with the usual household rubbish, and nothing happened. He was burning trash in his yard and a neighbor noticed him tossing a baby into the trash. The coroner was never able to figure out if the baby was alive or not when he threw it in the fire, so he never got charged with murder. There was plenty of gossip and speculation, but nobody ever said for sure where the baby came from. The man had two daughters. One of them had been wearing extra baggy clothes to school, and after her father burned the baby she started wearing less baggy clothing, so she might have been pregnant. She might have miscarried. They might have done a home abortion, or maybe the baby came to term and was stilborn. Or maybe they killed the baby.

The girls kept going to school. The dad, well, everyone said he was a respectable man who loved his daughters and would do anything for them... Charges were filed, but not murder since they couldn't prove anything. The day of the trial a key person failed to show up, and the charges were dropped.

Life goes on in Milo. A baby burned. A respectable business man burned it. That is all anyone knows for sure, except for the man and his daughters and they aren't saying anything.

Welcome to Maine. The way life should be. If you lived here, you'd be home now.

And yes, this is where the name Milo in the novel came from, though when I chose that name, Milo was just a town somewhere north of Orono to me. I didn't know anything about it.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

life imitating art

Apologies for not updating this as regularly as I'd planned. You can read up on all the crap that's been going on in my life over at my other blog. After next week, though, when Mayterm wraps up, and I'll be moved into my new digs in Belfast, I should be returning to my regularly scheduled broadcast.

I've been having literary moments of late. Not moments of reading literature, but moments where it seems my life is being written by someone else. For example:

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm the fifth generation of my family to live in this house. As my siblings all bought houses, this began to feel like a responsibility. When Mom finally moved on (from this house of from this life) it would be up to me to keep the house in the family. Some days this felt like a burden and some times like it could be a joyous thing, carrying on tradition, living here, having my own kids who would inherit this house one day. Since I moved back here five years ago I've been working to fix the place up, knowing it would either increase resale value and help my mom, and/or make it a nicer place for me to live.

One part of the property that I always wanted to work on but never got around to was the apple orchard. Fifty years or so ago, my dad planted a dozen or so apple trees. They'd been neglected for decades, and were choked out by maple saplings, but miraculously they still produced fruit. With some judicious pruning and clearing, they could be brought back to life. It was one of those things I'd planned to do if I bought the place.

But a few months ago I gave up on the idea of buying this house. It's time to start new traditions, new stories elsewhere. As soon as I decided this, I immediately felt lighter and happier and knew it was the right choice.

Last week I discovered that all the apple trees had been cut down.

With all the rain that's fallen, the river is higher than it has ever been this time of year, at least in my lifetime. We get a flood every year when the snow melts, but never this late in the year. Since the floodwaters are so high, so late, it means the beavers, who never stray far from the shoreline, have access to all kinds of trees that were never in their reach before. In all those years they've never been able to get at those trees, until now.

It seems a little too symbolic for real life.

I walk down the streets of what has been my hometown for so many years. In a week, it won't be my hometown anymore. There's a house I've walked by hundreds of times taking a shortcut to get to campus. It is immaculately groomed, in perfect shape, but I've never seen anyone there. It has been a mystery to me for more than a decade. Who lives there? Why does it look lived in when nobody is ever there?

Today I walked by and there's a guy with NH plates on his car, tidying things up. No mystery there. Just another Maine property owned by someone from away who only spends a couple weeks out of the year there.

There's a woman who lives in a house at the top of the hill. I pass by her house almost every day, but I've never seen her face. She's outside often, working around her house. She's often wearing a bikini, so I know what 90% of the rest of her body looks like, but somehow, her face is always obscured. She's either facing away from the street or carrying a big bag of groceries, or something. One time I walked by and she was working in the flower bed in front of the house, facing the street, and I thought for sure that it would be the day I finally got to see her face. But right when I got up to her, she leaned over to work the ground at the base of a fence post, the post blocking her face from my view! This has happened dozens of times now, like a sitcom. What was it? Home Improvement, where we never saw the next door neighbor's face.

So, it is all riding on this. If someone else is writing my life, then this is the week I see her face. It is series finale time, time for all these plot threads to be tied up. Maybe she's a long lost love, ironically living just a few hundred feet away for all these years. Maybe her face is so hideous I'll scream. It doesn't matter, though. There's so much mystery tied up in it now, anything will be anticlimactic. But if the week ends and I don't see her face, then I'm free. Nobody is writing my story but me.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

episode two: dead girls

(spoiler alert: don't read this unless you've read chs. 1 &2)

People die in this town.

That's no suprise. People die everywhere. What I mean is, people die badly here in Orono, Maine. Only they aren't supposed to. We get maybe a dozen murders, tops, per year in the State of Maine. In a town like Orono murder can't possibly happen. So when it does it is met with denial.

Her name was Hannah. I didn't know her personally, but I was friends with people who did. Hannah "committed suicide" a few years back. Because the police decided immediately that she'd committed suicide, they never bothered to look for clues that might have proved otherwise:

Hannah was a happy person with lots of friends, and had never shown any signs of being suicidal.
She'd just bought Christmas presents for her family and friends, and was talking about how much she was looking forward to Christmas.
There was no suicide note.
There were no powder burns.
She'd just started dating a guy who, it turns out, was just out of jail.

When these facts were brought to the police they said, well, she was probably cleaning her gun and it went off. Problem is, Hannah's dad was a cop. Hannah grew up around guns and gun safety was something she was fanatic about. Even though she didn't have kids, she always kept a lock on her gun when she wasn't using it at the shooting range.

It hurts just to think about what it must have been like for her friends and family. To have lost someone they loved, and to know that most likely she was murdered, but that the police destroyed any evidence that might prove this. To have, instead, your loved one held up to public ridicule and scorn for being a suicide. To spend the rest of your life not knowing the truth. What do you do? How do you heal from that?

If you're in Orono, stop by the Bear Brew Pub. There's a plaque to Hannah at the left end of the bar. Pay your respects to Hannah. I wish I could give more testament to her life, but sadly, all I really know about is her death and how much it hurt her friends.

There was another incident just a couple years ago. A student killed herself by hanging herself from a tree near her dorm. All I have to go by on this one are rumors. Suicides rarely make the news because they are seen as so shameful, and they want to protect the family, supposedly. So this student killed herself, but something about it just didn't sit right to me. She'd just gotten off the phone with her boyfriend and was going down to meet him. Again, there was no suicide note. Again, from what I hear, she was a happy person who showed no signs of being suicidal. And we're supposed to believe that in the short walk to meet her boyfriend her life suddenly turned so tragic that she spontaneously hung herself?

Just another teenage suicide. The police didn't bother to look for any other clues. I'm not sure it even made the papers, so the dead girl never even had a name. It happened in the fall. The University instituted an October Break policy years ago. AKA the Suicide Break because so many students killed themselves during that time period.

But this is a quiet town, and bad things like murder are things that only happen in other towns.

Episode Two Now Broadcasting

I just uploaded Episode Two.

Additonally, I have added the "LIT MA LSV" designation to the home page, for Literature (as opposed to TV) Mature Audiences, Language, Sex, Violence. This is adapted from the web page. Their definition of TV MA LSV is as follows:

Mature Audience Only
This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17. This program contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), explicit sexual activity (S), or crude indecent language (L).

I do a lot of work with elementary school kids, so some might get the impression I write for them too. While I make no promises that this work will offend you, it isn't intended for immature audiences, or for those with weak stomaches, or for people who are easily offended by things they disagree with and want to be protected from them.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

just for one day

Castles is a work of heroic fiction in the old-school sense. I saw an interview with George Lucas years ago on his reasons for doing the original Star Wars. He was hanging out with Joseph Campbell and they were talking about heroes (big suprise there) and the hero's role in culture. They are more than just for telling entertaining stories about. Heroes are role models, showing what is good and noble in a culture, inspiring us to be the best we can be. At least, traditionally this is what they've been, though I think in our own culture we've largely lost our heroes. Lucas thought so too, and he set out to create new heroes.

Lucas seems to have abandoned this with the last two movies (one reason among many why these movies are so awful). I can see why, though. It is simultaneously anachronistic, idealistic and fascistic. Fascistic, because to create a hero in the traditional sense, you have to believe that you know what is best for society and be willing to impose that view on others. Idealistic because to even bother trying you have to believe that you can make a difference, and that it is worth it to try. Anachronistic because America doesn't have heroes anymore. Not really. Heroes have been replaced by celebrity cults. Really, how many people can you point to and say, "I wish my kids would grow up to be like that person," or, "I wish I were more like that." There might be someone, but for most people in America it is because they make a lot of money, or a good at sports or a really famous, not because they're good people or have done anything to make the world a better place.

If the hero's is a reflection of what is good and virtuous in society, how can such a being exist in ours? We live in a cultural bipolar disorder. On the one pole concepts of right and wrong and morality are just marketing gimics. They're ways of furthering one's own agenda by opressing others. Think of the "religious right" (In quotes because they're neither) with their "We don't like it, therefore it is evil and immoral and should be prohibited" attitude or the Republican party's "Support the President or you're unAmerican," propaganda, where even questioning or voicing dissent is seen as immoral. On the other pole we have cultural relativism where every view is accepted and tolerated, and others can only be judged according to their own culture or upbringing, which makes the only real "immoral" act that of hypocrisy. Unless you yourself say that something is wrong, and then you don't live by that standard, nothing you do can be considered immoral.

I can see why Lucas would whimp out. Seems to me, though, that we need heroes now more than ever.

Do kids today have heroes? Do they have any examples they can look at and want to be when they grew up? I was lucky. I was an anachronism. I loved the old heroes: Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and John Carter and Doc Savage. Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm not sure Captain Underpants really counts as a hero.

I'm not claiming to have created a "hero for our times." Castles is an exploration, an attempt to come up with a modern definition of a hero, one that can survive in a culture of diversity and contradiction, one that can be virtuous and noble but still "real".

After writing a novel about it and thinking about it for years, I'm not sure I'm any closer to figuring out what a hero is. I can point out a few examples. My own father, for instance. Before his aneurism, he was town manager of several different towns. One time a contractor tried to bribe my father with the gift of a house if my father approved his permit for a housing development. My father knew the contractor to be a good man, but at the time (and moreso today, I'm sure) the system was just so corrupt that you had to bribe your government officials in order to get anything done. I think about my dad back then, a young man supporting a wife and four kids, and how much he could have used the money, and how everyone around him was doing it, so he could have gotten away with it, easy. But he refused the bribe. And he still gave the guy the permit! That to me is one quality of a hero. Doing the right thing even when it isn't necessarily in your benefit. My dad also got curbside recycling started in Durham, NH in the 70s, twenty years before people in general realized how important it was. And he got a sewage treatment plant going that turned waste into usable compost instead of dumping it into the ocean. He saw problems and he solved them in ways that were best for the environment and the future, not because they were the cheapest, easiest or most politically beneficial ways.

I hope I live up to his example. Sometimes I might, but mostly, I'm no hero.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Remembering Welch

Now that I think about it, Welch may have been the first positive adult male role model I ever had. Not that I'm saying my own father was really a bad influence, but... well... he had a brain aneurism when I was 5 that left him brain damaged. I'm told he was a great man before this. A man of intelligence, honor and integrity. The father I know, however, sat around and watched TV a whole lot, ate too much junk food and dug through trash cans to find returnables like a homeless person. He couldn't carry on conversations or offer guidance or advice or do any of those things I hear dads are supposed to. I guess I didn't have it too bad though. At least he wasn't physically abusive. No wait, yes he was, until I got big enough to hurt back. Guess I really did get the short end of the stick as far as fathers go.

I met Welch when I was a freshman in college (first year student, in case you're unfamiliar with the term "freshman". The PC 90s changed that. IMHO, it should have been changed to Person of Fresh). I knew from that start that I'd be an English major, creative writing concentration. As long as I could remember I wanted to write novels. I never had the ambition to write the Great American Novel, as most English majors do. I wanted to write pure entertainment. Books that might not change you in any way, but that once you started reading, you couldn't put down again. The early Stephen King, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, they helped me escape for days on end while I was growing up. I was also a b-movie fanatic, watching every sci-fi and horror movie I could find. I found brilliance and inspiration in movies like Attack of the Giant Leeches the way respectable people found in Citizen Kane.

Of course I had to meet Welch. Welch Everman was a professor in the English department at the University of Maine. Academia may have become less hostile toward pop culture since the 80s, but back then Welch was a radical. He'd make analalogies between Hamlet and the latest twists in pro wrestling, and he had no trouble shelving comic books next to the "great classics of literature." Welch was my academic advisor. Advising sessions consisted of sitting in his office as he smoked cheap cigarettes while we discussed obscure horror movies that only the two of us had ever seen. Then he'd sign my blank class sign-up sheet and I'd fill in the rest on my own.

I think I learned more that way than in any of my classes. One of the most important things I learned from Welch was that the same techniques you'd use to analyze a Shakespeare play could also be applied to the worst monster movie, and that you could learn things from both. I think my whole life is a lot more enjoyable because of this. When you can see how Hamlet connects to pro wrestling, you can make the connection between Hamlet and your own life. Both Hamlet and Pro Wrestling become much more fascinating! All life becomes a text that you can learn from.

Welch also believed in me as a writer. He encouraged me to keep writing and try to get published. It was the first time I ever felt believed in, or encouraged.

Unfortunately, when I left college I persued a career in computer graphics. This effectively killed me as a writer. When you spend all day staring at a computer screen, the last thing you want to do is stare at a computer screen in your free time. Years past, and I lost touch with Welch. I still made attempts at novels now and then, but never made the time for it. Writing is one of my favorite things to do, so it is always the first thing to get sacrificed when things get busy.

Then my dad got Alzheimers and I returned home to help my mom deal with it. I became a student again. I didn't really feel a pressing need to get my masters degree. It was just something to do to keep from going crazy.

Meanwhile, Welch got cancer. All those cheap cigarettes caught up with him. He got through it. Well, "went into remission." Cancer isn't something that is ever cured. I'd always planned on publishing a novel and coming back to show Welch and making him proud. I realized that all Welch might ever see from me was a whole lot of false starts. I felt dissapointed in myself. So I took another creative writing class with Welch, and wrote Castles in one semester, last fall, just so I could prove to Welch and to myself that I could actually finish something. I planned on rewriting it and actually trying to publish it this time.

It was the last class Welch taught. The cancer came back, and I didn't even realize he was dying. Rumors spread fast on campus. I'd hear from one person that Welch was sick and from another that he was doing great. I was out of town when he died, and didn't even find out about the funeral until days later.

When I asked my mother, who works at the University with people who were good friends with Welch, why she didn't tell me, she said, "Oh, I didn't know you knew him."

I guess there's a lesson in there somewhere.

It is only recently that I've been able to talk about this. His loss is heartbreaking to me. I still catch myself thinking, "Oh, I should tell Welch about this!" and realizing I can't, and that I know I can't, and haven't been able to for a long time, and how does something like that slip your mind?

But I'll finish the novel. And I'll get it published. And I'll dedicate it to Welch.