Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Do You Write Scary?

For all kinds of reasons October is my favorite time of year. A recent reason is a couple evenings ago at a coffee shop a pretty young woman dressed as a cat approached me. She wore a skintight black bodysuit with big furry triangular ears on top of her head. A long, curly tail swished very slowly behind her, and she had whiskers painted on her cheeks. It's not unusual for people to talk to me about writing, but in December, March or August none of them are women dressed like slinky Halloween cats. That's strictly an October thing.

Viva October!

The cat said she had just finished reading my e-book of scary short stories, "Trust and Other Nightmares." She told me she enjoyed a good fright, so she liked the book a lot. I thanked her. Then, her tail twitching, she said she wanted to ask me something.

"How do you write scary?"

She put her hands on her hips and looked at me. She was waiting for an answer. Felines aren't renown for their patience.

I told her this: Many years ago I worked for a private security company. Some government jobs, corporate clients, but mostly we watched over the homes of well-to-do folks. I was working one snowy Christmas because the company was very short-handed and I was very broke. Late that Christmas night dispatch sent me and an alarm tech named Cleo to check out a client's house. It was more mansion than house, buried deep in a heavily wooded suburb off a winding road without streetlights. The clients were traveling abroad for the holidays, and the place was empty, so it wasn't good that its motion detectors were going off. Oddly, the perimeter motion detectors ringing the house hadn't been tripped --  just the interior detectors. I was tasked to take Amber to the site so she could fix what was obviously a malfunctioning system.

When we pulled up in the company SUV the house was completely dark, just as it should have been. The snow on the drive and walkways was undisturbed. Off in the distance to the south, through trees moaning under masses of frothing snow, we could barely make out colored lights winking at us from the living room windows of the nearest neighbors. Cleo grabbed her toolkit from the SUV and we struggled through the snow to the rear of the house. She used a remote to disable the perimeter alarms, and I went to the back door that lead to the kitchen to see if it was locked. It was, which was good. Through frosted windows we could see the light of the motion detector monitor in the kitchen beaming a steady red telling us all was well. I unlocked the door and turned the knob. It wouldn't open. I pushed against it harder, then Amber helped me. The unlocked door wouldn't move, no matter how much we slammed our weight against it. We stepped back, breathing hard in the cold, looking at each other. The motion detector light in the kitchen flickered a moment, then started flaring and flashing wildly. We were panting a yard away from it when the door softly clicked and slowly swung open. My pulse accelerated as I drew my weapon and lead Amber inside. From a console hidden in the kitchen she quickly and quietly disabled the interior motion detectors. I tried to turn on the kitchen lights, but they wouldn't work. None of the lights in the house would come on, even though the refrigerator's hum and the green glow of the digital clock on the microwave's face showed the power was on. Knowing back-up wouldn't arrive for hours if at all so late on a blizzardy Christmas night, we decided to check the house ourselves so we could finish and get out sooner rather than later. It took us almost an hour to clear the immense house, room by room, huddling behind the sweep of my flashlight and the barrel of my pistol. No intruders but us, spooked by a stuck back door.

Cleo took my flashlight and pulled up a chair to sit in front of the security console and begin her work. I flipped the kitchen light switches a few more times without effect while she hummed a Barry Manilow song I hated and dug through her toolkit. I told her I was going back to the truck to get a couple more flashlights and our thermoses. In the flashlight's glow I made out the silhouette of her head nodding as I turned to venture reluctantly back into the cold.

Sharp flakes battered my face and stung my eyes as I waded through waves of  thick, white snow. I kept my head down and followed the remnants of the tracks we left earlier. An icy wind alternately howled and whispered in my ears while I trudged around the side of the house to the driveway. When I reached the SUV my whole body was shivering. I threw myself in the driver's seat and slammed the door, eager to hide for a minute from the cold. The snow had piled up enough on the vehicle's windows while we were in the house that it was too dark inside to see. Fumbling with numb fingertips for the ignition, I slid the key in it, then flipped on the wipers and peered through endless whorls of snowflakes at the house.

Warm, yellow lamplight flowed from an upstairs bedroom window that framed Cleo while she grinned at me, giving me a big thumbs-up. I leaned toward the windshield and waved back, glad the job was done and we could head back to the warmth of the office. Then I was flung against the passenger door when the SUV lifted into the air and slammed into the driveway on its side. Yelping at a shooting pain in my right elbow, I scrambled to find my footing on the passenger door while the SUV rocked back and forth and a low, deep growl rumbled through the truck's steel skeleton. My reeling mind raced to right itself and fight off screaming panic. In a desperate attempt to regain my bearings I threw my eyes at the windshield and saw a hulking shadow drift past the overturned truck. The darkness moved past the windshield and my heart crashed against my ribs as manic snow hurled itself against the cracked windscreen and icy, jagged letters took shape in the broken glass.

You can't help her.

The brief pastiche above is nothing more than an hors d'oeuvre, a shard of story I riffed off the top of my head for the curious kitty while we stood for a few minutes in a crowded coffee shop. Still, it contains in one form or another every stalwart ingredient in the classic horror recipe.

But it's not the ingredients that make a story eerie. It's not the recipe. The best ingredients and the most decadent recipes will always fail to please unless a culinary artist brings them together in new and delicious ways.

It's how you write scary. That's what matters.

Happy Halloween. And for the record, I'll take the trick. I always do.

"We shall see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick up their ears after midnight."
~~ H. P. Lovecraft ~~

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Remembrances of Things Weird: Hunter S. Thompson

Johnny Depp and I don't have a whole lot in common. One of us is a good-looking pseudo-swashbuckler over whom hot women melt all round the world. The other one's an actor. One thing Depp and I do share, however, is an appreciation for the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and his writings. Thompson's never far from my mind, and he has been even less so lately since my television started carpet-bombing me a few days ago with trailers for the upcoming release of Depp's new movie, "The Rum Diary". That movie, based on Thompson's 1961 novel of the same title, marks Depp's second portrayal of a character not far removed from the Good Doctor himself (the first being in the 1998 film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Thompson's writing generally, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas particularly, hugely influenced me in my youth. Not that my writing's anything like Thompson's -- I've never been able to loosen the leash on my insanity with nearly as much regularity and gusto as he could on his. I suppose under the totality of my circumstances that's a good thing, though I'm sure Thompson would cogently disagree.

I had the great fortune to meet Thompson on a couple of occasions. The last time was on a spring evening in the late '80s at a genteel cocktail reception hosted by Vanderbilt University to honor what was then Thompson's most recent book. One of us was inebriated, and the other was intoxicated, but it slips my mind who was which. In any event, we were enjoying a robust exchange of inappropriate ideas about politics and the arts until things suddenly swerved into savagery when I suggested the title of his latest release, Generation of Swine, was "too wordy." Amid the delicate tinkling of champagne flutes, Thompson loudly retorted through a blast of acrid cigarette smoke that I was too patently illiterate to read above a third-grade level, which he attributed to genetic issues on my part rendering me functionally ineducable. With suitable professional gravitas, I replied, "As your attorney, I advise you to drink either far more or far less before appearing at events attended by people. Any other choice makes you stumble around on the same squishy ground reserved for shameless pimps and delusional blowhards." This sent Thompson into a rage. He flapped his arms around like a giant, rabid bat and screeched at me, "You're way too young to be my attorney." Then he reached out and yanked the full beard I had at the time and added, "You're not even old enough to shave."

That was the precise moment when I knew beyond doubt one day I'd be a writer.

The vast majority of the foregoing is absolutely true; nothing but cold, hard facts. This is especially so of the parts I didn't make up. The warmer, softer quasi-facts I improvised to weave into a movie script I'm working on and will never finish that's peripherally about Thompson. Depp's dropping by next week to do a read-through, and then he's taking me to see "The Rum Diary."

I wouldn't miss it for the world.

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”
~~ Hunter S. Thompson  ~~

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Author Spotlight: Marvin H. McIntyre

One of the cool things about being an author is getting to know readers and authors from all over the world. One of the cool things about being an author/blogger is the opportunity to showcase some of those great authors for Gazalapalooza readers. The following is the first in what will be an ongoing series of Gazalapalooza Author Spotlights. I’ve chosen a fairly open-ended interview format permitting our authors to riff freely in their replies, so readers can get to know something about the authors and their books that might not shine as brightly in other interviews.

"Insiders" is Marvin McIntyre’s first novel. It’s not only a gripping and suspenseful thriller, it’s very timely. Set against the backdrop of the recent economic crises that quaked (and continue to quake) the globe, veteran financial advisor Mac McGregor is secretly enlisted by the White House to track down McGregor’s former colleague, the arrogant, greedy and brilliantly elusive hedge fund manager Jeremy Lyons, as the first step in a plan to clean up Wall Street. McGregor’s dangerous hunt has him tracing Lyons everywhere from the exclusive enclaves of the privileged few through seedy hovels along a trail strewn with subterfuge, espionage and death. When Lyons’ trail finally gets warm and McGregor starts to close in on his target, the hunter becomes the hunted and the stakes grow more fatal by the minute.

McIntyre’s "official" biographical sketch is this: "Marvin H. McIntyre is a nationally acclaimed financial advisor with over 40 years of experience. In addition to managing wealth for families and advising corporate clients on a broad spectrum of financial issues, Mr. McIntyre has been a featured speaker on radio and television covering investments and the markets. His financial acumen has earned him the nickname Financial Wizard because of his candor, his insights and his humor. This is his first novel and was inspired by the events that rocked the world financial markets in 2008 -2009. Mr. McIntyre will donate a minimum of 50% of the net proceeds from the sale of this novel to charity. He is a native of Washington D.C., a graduate of The Citadel, and a Viet Nam veteran."

Impressive. As for me, I just consider myself privileged that Marvin has been my friend for the past ten years. Marvin has my thanks for his gracious participation in this inaugural Author Spotlight. And so without further ado, let’s get this spotlight fired up and trained squarely on Mr. McIntyre.

Gazala:            In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

McIntyre:        First, I would make a compelling case why you should expand upon your beneficence. On the off chance that failed, I would choose "Lords of Discipline," by Pat Conroy. As a Citadel graduate I could revisit my history and realize that being on this island is not that tough a duty after all. Nonfiction is tougher for me because I am addicted to fiction. However, I would reread "No Ordinary Time," by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It deals with FDR and my grandfather was in his administration.

Gazala:            Your debut novel is an excellent and timely thriller titled "Insider." I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about "Insider," and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

McIntyre:        I appreciate your endorsement and I too am baffled that an endorsement from someone of your literary gifts is not sufficient to have it soar to the top of the New York Times’ Bestseller List.  A recent review of "Insiders" in Barron's correctly surmised that there were some systemic faults in our economic structure that I believe have yet to be fixed, and in fact "Insiders" offers some solutions. Fortunately, Barron’s felt that those solutions are wrapped around a quick, highly entertaining read. So far, I have been humbled by the reviews.

Gazala:            What are books for?

McIntyre:        I believe that books are one of God's greatest gifts. I am donating the proceeds of "Insiders" to literacy charities because reading is such a blessing. I recently lectured at three different classes at the Citadel and I championed books as, "the mind's great enhancers, developing communication skills and overall understanding."

Gazala:            W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

McIntyre:        I do not have the status to disagree. Yet, one of the thrills of writing my first novel was the rewrites and looking back and seeing how much improvement came from the continuing analysis. It is such an individual endeavor—some write outlines, some profess to have the words write themselves.

Gazala:            I have to take this call. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

McIntyre:        Question: You have enjoyed a nationally acclaimed reputation as a financial advisor. Why did you write a book, and why did you wait until you had been in the business for 40 years before you wrote it? Answer: I have always wanted to write but I did not have a plot.  Well, if you could not find a plot in 2008, you were not paying attention.  

You can find "Insiders" all over the place, including at Amazon by clicking on this link:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Glenn Stout's "Fenway 1912" -- Not Just for Red Sox Fans

Although those old enough to remember the 1986 World Series may feel differently, many deem the September collapse of the 2011 Boston Red Sox as the worst flop in the history of Major League Baseball. As recently as August of 2011, smart money in Las Vegas put the chances of the Red Sox making the post-season at 99.4%. The Red Sox proved Vegas wrong by utterly blowing the nine game lead the team enjoyed in the American League Wild Card race in early September. Tony Francona fell on his sword and stepped down as Red Sox manager a couple days after the season's disastrous end, emphasizing among other ailments that derailed the team's seemingly assured playoff appearance a locker room teeming with strife and dissension among the players. But author Glenn Stout's excellent new book, "Fenway 1912," gives the lie to the notion that locker room ego clashes preclude championship play on the diamond.

As intimated by its subtitle, Stout's book covers far more than player discord during the 1912 season. Fenway's inaugural season was marked by virtually incessant tumult -- terrible weather; greedy baseball executives; labor unrest; professional gamblers; Boston politics; architectural slapdash; ornery fans and religious intolerance. Each and all of these demanded heavy tolls from the team during a baseball season book-ended by the Titanic's sinking and an attempted assassination of Progressive Party presidential candidate (and former president) Theodore Roosevelt. Given that virtually anyone who personally witnessed Fenway's erection and its first World Series isn't alive anymore, Stout does a superb job sifting through masses of contemporaneous historical records to unveil not only the intricacies of building the park and the team that played in it, but also to imbue the book with a sense of the turbulent social, cultural, political and economic forces roiling America 100 years ago. In that way, "Fenway 1912" appeals more broadly than to only fans of the Boston Red Sox, or of professional baseball. Stout conveys very well a small slice of Americana at a time when the country was undergoing fundamental sociopolitical changes culminated by Woodrow Wilson's winning a ferocious four-party presidential election while the tinder of World War I caught fire in the Balkans.

Before spring training's first pitch the 2011 Red Sox were widely considered a lock to make the post-season, if not win the World Series. Presumably the October 11, 2011 release date for "Fenway 1912" was intended to coincide with the team's predicted march to championship glory. It would be a shame if the team's premature demise dowsed interest in Stout's outstanding new book. The 1912 Boston Red Sox were a team ridden with religious and other schisms so intractable bloody fistfights broke out in their locker room during the World Series they won. Against this backdrop, Stout's book is instructive in making abundantly (though unintentionally) clear that pinning the 2011 team's failure on a vastly pettier brand of interpersonal friction than what rocked Fenway throughout 1912 rings hollow. Good history is illuminative that way.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Call me Blockhead.

It’s not my real name.  I don’t have a real name.  I get called plenty of other names, always by frustrated writers thinking I’m the enemy I’m not.  Just about all those other names are unprintable in a family-friendly blog like this one, though.  So we’ll keep it clean, and go with Blockhead.

You can’t understand me, unless you understand writers.  I understand writers.  I spend a lot of time tormenting them.  I torment them, because I respect them.  Sure, I delight in agonizing writers, but I know without them I wouldn’t exist.  And without me, they wouldn’t write as well they can.  We need each other.  Of course it’s twisted and codependent.  However, unlike other spheres of human endeavor, in the arts twisted and codependent often produce stellar results. 

I understand writers, but they usually misunderstand me.  There’s no number high enough to count the times I’ve been damned as an unfeeling and unyielding monster, content to sup on the misery of a writer stuck for a word or a plot twist or even an entire storyline.  Unfairly cursed, I hasten to add.  I do what I do out of love for literature, and the literate.  All the bedeviling I do is with clearest conscience and purest heart.

Look, to me, writers are superheroes.  They willingly confront a barren page and out of nothing more than their inherent creative powers concoct memorable characters and compelling stories in places familiar or strange to amuse, inform or shock us.

Think about it.  Leaping over skyscrapers and running faster than a speeding bullet are astounding feats, no doubt.  So is dressing like a giant bat and ridding our streets of psychopaths.  Yet even those superpowers are unimpressive next to the indefinable creative brawn necessary to wrench Superman and Batman from sheer nothingness and propel them to global sociocultural immortality.

Still, what is Superman without Lex Luthor?  What is Batman without the Joker?  Inarguably detestable as Luthor and the Joker are, they are the indispensable nemeses that make Superman and Batman worth embracing.  Without their supervillainous banes, these superheroes would have no reason to be either super, or heroic.

Enter Blockhead.  My writers are superheroes.  I am their supervillain.  They struggle mightily to create.  I use my power of writer’s block to stop them at every turn.  True, I can be a tad sadistic from time to time, and I can’t recall ever being accused of understaying my welcome.  To write their best my writers have to battle me knowing I never fight fair.  When they persevere and overcome every obstacle I hurl at them, their writing is sharp, clear and far more worthy of reading than had I failed to make them suffer and sweat.  I’m not their enemy.  I’m their ally.  I just don’t dress the part too well, and my P.R. team does an abysmal job trumpeting my invaluable contributions to authorial achievement.

Call me Blockhead.  Or call me those other words unfound in respectable dictionaries.  Sticks and stones.  The only way a writer can hurt me, is to let me win.

 "Plumbers don't get plumber's block, and doctors don't get doctor's block; 
why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working,
and then expects sympathy for it?"
 ~~ Philip Pullman ~~

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The E-lluminated Manuscript

Let's put aside for the limited purposes of this post the timeless argument about whether time's passage is linear or circular, and simply concur with the old karmic adage (not to be confused with Justin Timberlake's similarly titled song), "What goes around, comes around." In view of the e-reader and e-reading explosion currently underway, it's an intriguing thought to consider in assessing the future of the book by revisiting its ancient past.

We're taught in history classes to thank the monastic scribes whose tireless efforts in the centuries following the decline of the Roman Empire in the third century A.D. prevented humanity's loss of classical Greek and Roman literature. A significant portion of those monks' most renown work was produced in the form we now call "illuminated manuscripts." An illuminated manuscript is one where the work's text is adorned, often lavishly and intricately, with all sorts of opulent decorations. During those dark times centuries ago, the few readers and patrons fortunate (and literate) enough to appreciate the scribes' toil found their reading experiences enhanced by all types of engaging artwork designed to celebrate the text and expand upon its meanings.

In other words, those ancient books' allure wasn't restricted to their textual content. Given the technological and socio-economic constrictions of the times, in effect the illuminated manuscript was the first publicly disseminated multi-media literary experience. The illuminated manuscript reigned supreme for over a thousand years, until Gutenberg invented his printing press and gave us the means of mechanized mass book production that remains the dominant (albeit waning)  mode of book manufacture and publication to this day. Gutenberg's invention sounded the death knell for the illuminated manuscript.

Until now.

The rise of the commercial Internet and the plethora of wired and wireless devices that easily and cheaply access its virtually limitless content has lead to an attendant explosion in reading books on ever more sophisticated machines. When my debut thriller "Blood of the Moon" first came out not even two years ago, its physical formats outsold its electronic ones by a ratio of about ten to one. Today, the reverse is true. My author friends tell me their sales statistics largely mirror mine. This is no passing trend -- the business model for book production and distribution is changing irrevocably, in lockstep with readers' demands and expectations as determined by the kinds of machines they use to access, purchase and read written work. 

As Gutenberg's press dethroned the illuminated manuscript almost 600 years ago, so today e-reading has rendered Borders bankrupt, and the remaining big box booksellers (not to mention the publishers and authors who rely on them for sales) tremble in its cross-hairs. Barring a global electro-magnetic pulse attack that devastates the Internet and returns us to the days before e-everything, the mass-produced physical book as we know it has but one future -- extinction.

Before letting this depress you, dwell for a moment on what physical books are, and aren't. A "book" is a piece of technology, comprised mostly of paper and ink, for the primary purpose of sharing information or a story. The book isn't the information, nor is it the story. Humans have been sharing information and stories with each other since we learned how to communicate with hand signals and grunts. We'll continue to do so until we stop breathing.

Information and stories aren't going away. The way we're accustomed to sharing them is, because our technology and expectations have outgrown the "book."

Our machines -- the computers and tablets and e-readers and smartphones we use -- position us to enjoy the adornment of information and stories with all sorts of opulent decorations. Those decorations may not be the same as the ones produced in monkish scriptoria in centuries past, but they're related to them. Just as with the illuminated manuscripts of long ago, information and stories read via modern e-reading machines encourage (and demand) more than mere text to educate and entertain us. In the near future the most successful e-books will be the ones vivid with video, voice, pictographic and/or musical decorations that celebrate the text and expand upon its meanings.

Only the illuminated manuscript can take advantage of our e-reading machines in ways that are compelling enough to make us want to read deeply rather than skim broadly. This is even truer for the generations after ours, whose lifetimes will be steeped in e-everything from the day they learn their first A-B-C's on multi-media e-reading machines. The authors, artists, publishers and readers who embrace this will thrive in ways unimagined not many years ago. The ones who don't will find themselves quaint mementos of times gone by.

What goes around comes around. Hence, the resurrection of the original multi-media literary experience -- the illuminated manuscript.

Or, as I like to call it -- the E-lluminated Manuscript.

"The medium is the message." 
~~ Marshall McLuhan (1964) ~~