Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Best Reads of 2014

2014 was a rough year. Twice, I found myself so sick for prolonged stretches of time that I wasn't cognitively capable of reading at all. That's why it was a surprise to look over my Goodreads list and remember that I've actually read a plethora of incredible prose this year. While I may have gotten down on film and videogames, books have remained something special. This might even be my favorite line-up since we started the #bestreads tradition.

So here are my twelve darlings. I couldn't cut it any further.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Dinner Prayer 2014

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
bless us for our good intentions,
which always outstrip our good works.

Today: please be kind to those who couldn’t be here,
and those who shouldn’t be here,
and those we just decided not to invite.

Bring bread to those who have not,
and softer hearts to those of us who don’t share their bread as much as they could.

We ask not for a richer world,
but for you to make us better citizens of it,
to love and appreciate each other as much as we can,
and for lenience, when we disappoint.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Catching Up

This is the first year my sister has hosted Thanksgiving dinner, and God has decided to celebrate by sending a blizzard for my drive. While there's much I should blog about, I'd like to catch up on five dear topics:

1. The World Fantasy Convention was wonderful.
When I got home, several things I don’t care to write about fell on me at the same time and I never got to write up what a lovely time I had at the WFC. I got to spend an hour digging into what makes Max Gladstone’s fantastic world work, and to gush at Ted Chiang and Guy Gavriel Kay. My God, the number of fascinating people I met. Seeing VP classmates was a blessing each time, even when I couldn’t hear anyone over the noise of the bar. It’s one of the finest publishing conventions I’ve ever attended, and I will do my damnedest to attend the one in Saratoga Springs next-year. Join me?

2. io9 Likes Me?

So in the middle of everything, I was quoted for a full paragraph in an io9 article called “7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction and Fantasy Needs to Stop Using.” James Whitbook appreciated my old essay on the vast potential of Fantasy to stretch beyond visions of Fake Feudal Europe. It was a lovely thing to wake up to that morning. I stand by the essay, too.

3 “Wet” is now available for free.
Earlier this month my short story “Wet” was published in the first issue Urban Fantasy Magazine. With the magazine now out there, they have posted “Wet” for free on their website. While the magazine is Pay-What-You-Want and very slickly designed for e-readers, anyone who prefers browser reading can click right through. I’m very proud of this little story, which is about a ghost, and the patience only an immortal can have for her. I’d love your feedback on it.

4. What do you think happened in this airport bathroom?

5. Start Thinking About Best Reads 2014.As December approaches, I'm reflecting on the splendid books I've this year. I'll be hosting the annual Best Reads blog hop again this year, probably starting right after Christmas, giving anyone who wants in enough time to check their shelves. Any books, published at any time in human history, that you read for the first time this year, and that struck you the strongest.

So, that's four. I've got to get the family lasagna together. What have you all been up to?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Wet" is in the first issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

This week the first-ever issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine was published. Its first two stories are "A Chance of Cats and Dogs," by the award-winning Ken Scholes and "Wet," by myself. I'm honored to be in their first issue, and in this company. The magazine is currently available in EPUB and MOBI formats for Pay What You Want. One penny, ten bucks, it's up to you.

"Wet" is the story of a friendship between an immortal and a ghost, between someone who can't die and somehow who is traumatized by dying far too young.

It's a ghost that speaks exclusively in the voice of GWAR.

It's an immortal that volunteers as the fire department as a first responder, because what's the worst that can happen if the building collapses? You dig me out in a week.

The things these two can mean for each other... well, you'll see.

I'm so proud of this story, and not just because it's one of my more unbridled imagination pieces. Something I strive for is to mix to the absurdly humorous and the cathartic, which are the two things we owe ghosts. If you've ever enjoyed the imagination or humor of The Bathroom Monologues, then you're going to like getting "Wet."

A great thanks to everyone at UBF for giving me this chance. For other writers, they're open for submissions and pay SFWA pro-rates. They already have some amazing stuff in store, including work by Carrie Vaughn and Tim Powers.

If you read "Wet," I'd love to know your responses. Comment here, on UBF's site, or at my e-mail, bathroomDOTmonologuesATgmailDOTcom.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jaws is Not a Halloween Movie

"We need a Halloween movie."


"No, Jaws is a winter movie."

"You mean summer?"

"No, watch it when it can't ruin swimming for you."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Are Zombie Stories Always Disasters?

Yesterday I finished John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, and I wanted to call it the most creative zombie story since Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Except Handling the Undead was published the year before Brooks’s novel, and I simply took a while finding it. They’re opposed books, because World War Z is the best at what zombies always are, those rotting hordes of the apocalypse. Handling the Undead makes you question why they’re always that.

At this point, Zombie might as well be a genre. It’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, usually gory, stories of survival and moral ambiguity. Humans turn out to be the ultimate evil more regularly than in The Twilight Zone. Every year people proclaim zombies must be done, but The Walking Dead only gets bigger ratings, and more videogames and indie authors produce the rotting hordes. I haven’t fatigued of the zombie, which is the unusual promise that the world we live in will be transformed into a fantasy playground. But I do wonder about it becoming so conventional.

Early on, Handling the Undead de-fangs the zombie apocalypse by showing the police and military immediately rolling in against dangerous ones, while are others are so weak (they’ve been decomposing, for God’s sake) that their families can overtake and even keep them. It’s so matter-of-fact, both from the accounts of survivors and the newspaper-like chapters that fill us in on the world’s reactions, that it wholly disarms the fantasy of the undead toppling everything.

What they topple is the catharsis of death. A mother grieving over a dead son now has something even more inexplicable in her house. She doesn’t know if he’ll recover, if he remembers her, if she can feed or help him. She yearns to, and we read with hands over our mouths, hoping he won’t bite her the next time she leans in.

It’s not a story of headshots and desperate amputations. It made me wonder about Warm Bodies, which I couldn’t stand, but also didn’t give a chance to. YA Romance is so far from my wheelhouse that I didn’t consider it as a property changing the zombie and the story of zombieism. Handling the Undead got more leeway, both because its author wrote Let the Right One In, and because it was about the pathos of the sting of death being removed, which was more novel. Even Shaun of the Dead is really the same old zombie story, but with very funny handling. Part of its appeal is it talked about zombies the way our generation had been doing for years. It wasn’t this disruptive.

Eventually the zombie apocalypse gets so familiar that this happens.
Handling the Undead breaks some explicit and some unspoken rules about zombies. That’s what we all do now, right? You want them to run, you want the bite to be an instant change, etc. For Lindqvist, the undead don’t immediately go after flesh, and he plays on your expectation of this brilliantly, as you’re fearing for mourners who get too close. They seemingly respond to the emotional states of those around them (this is going to start the flesh-eating, isn’t it?).

More pregnant are the unspoken rules it breaks, for instance: zombies no longer spawn like hordes of videogame enemies whenever convenient. I love The Walking Dead comic, but both the comic and show get silly with the number of zombies that show up miles from any source of food or civilization, like they’re smelling the plot. You need that unspoken rule if you’re going to tell an action story. Handling the Undead, though, is about the emotional effects on loved ones of the recently returned.

It’s when you tamper with those “rules” that are actually contrived conventions that audiences can wonder why all those other stories act alike. There’s drama in a mass of zombies banging on the hero’s door when he’s only got two bullets left, but there’s a rarer drama in a devastated grandfather researching what medical equipment might keep his returned grandson alive, and the knowledge that if he can sustain the boy, he’ll have to flee the city to keep him safe from the government.

The disruption underlies what excites me most in all Speculative Fiction. We’ve seen so many cynical zombie stories that we know where most of it will go, that the old world will die and any non-protagonists will probably form negative groups, like cults and corrupt military pockets. But when you take a creature that is typically the engine of global disaster, and instead apply it to the internal life of specific people who don’t even get the reprieve of oppressive social orders disappearing, it can become something else. The humanity of it is unyielding, ironically, because it can’t die anymore.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Couple of Horrors - #fridayflash

It’s not my fault we live in the middle of the woods. It’s not hers, either, but I can use this. We finish Nightmare on Elm Street around 2:30 AM and hustle to get the Netflix disc back to the mailbox before the morning mail. That is a quarter mile trek under an overcast of clouds and oak boughs, so I bring the flashlight. An actual fog rolls between the trees, making Lita shiver despite her coat and long skirt.

“I don’t know why they remake classics,” I say, depositing the Netflix envelope. I close the lid and flip up the flag. “You know, why not just remake crappy movies? Ones that will benefit from new effects or re-writing?”

She inhales through her nose, loud and elegant, and we both know that no matter how many flaws I can find in this remake, she’ll be afraid to go to sleep tonight. It’s not my fault. Not hers, either, but I can use this. I eye the distance to the edge of the road. About three steps. When we get far enough from the mailbox, I shut off my beam.

"Wet" sold to Urban Fantasy Magazine

It's a good day to celebrate! Yesterday morning I signed the contract and sold my first short story to a pro-rate magazine. The lovely space is the newly launching Urban Fantasy Magazine, and mine is one of the first stories they've ever bought! It will be available on their site, though the publication date hasn't been determined yet.

"Wet" follows an immortal narrator who's gotten used to being eternal, and meeting a traumatized ghost that's haunting the train station en route to work. I won't spoil where it goes, but it was really fun to write a buddy piece between the deathless and the undead.

I wrote immediately after Viable Paradise 17 - it might have been one year ago today, actually. The workshop gave me so much to think about, and this was my way of working through many of those thoughts.

Now to write something new. Urban Fantasy is still open for submissions, if you'd like to join me!

And now to celebrate by watching scary movies! Feel free to recommend me one, particularly obscure things streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuke ‘Em: Pacific Rim's Problem with Kaiju Heritage

There’s a lot I love about Pacific Rim, but its ending has bothered me since opening weekend. Spoilers, naturally, if you haven’t seen it. In the last year, I haven’t heard a single person mention the oddity of a film rooted in Kaiju lore that resolves its problems by nuking the enemy army.

To start: Pacific Rim owes its existence to Godzilla. It has copious allusions to the 1954 film, and that franchise popularized the Kaiju battles that Pacific Rim is built around. Godzilla was punching giant robots a full decade before Guillermo Del Toro started making movies. It’s easy to envision the Jaeger program building Mechagodzilla in the eventual crossover – and Del Toro publicly said he wanted a crossover even before Pacific Rim screened. The appropriation is deliberate and largely affectionate.

In the fun and camp of giant battles, it’s easy to forget that the 1954 Godzilla is rooted in the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that film, the beast is both an allegory for nuclear war, and is literally woken up by the usage of nuclear weapons. These themes ebb and flow in the ensuing franchise, but the beloved character was emblematic of a real national terror.

Pacific Rim solves its conflict by dropping a nuclear bomb into the rift. The characters are explicit that the Jaeger’s core is a nuclear reactor – that’s why it works when others can't, and it goes off like a nuclear bomb, not like a reactor in meltdown. The war isn’t resolved when the two Jaegers defeat the final Kaiju. It isn’t solved by Pentecost’s sacrifice. Humanity is only safe once we’ve A-bombed the bad guys.

I reveled in most of the movie. Kikuchi, Perlman, Day and Elba are delights, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and the overall film is greatly executed. Is the movie dumb? Yes, but it’s great at its dumbness. Even the bombing, with GLaDOS counting down and the heroes racing to safety, is exciting.

But even in IMAX, it was also troubling. We clearly hit a military installation, with no idea of how many civilians live on site. It’s like the lovably dumb movie suddenly committed another Hiroshima.

It’s one thing to not make the anti-nuclear message your core point, and it’s another to explicitly go against it. Was it intentional? I like to think not. No press I’ve read around the film suggests an enthusiasm for nuclear holocaust. And mistakes happen in art because when you’re juggling a dozen things in your mind, a thirteenth can always hit the floor. What hit the floor here is an incredibly sensitive item, from the genesis of kaiju films and one of the worst evils human beings have ever committed.

And the bombing isn’t indispensible to the plot. The rift could have been blown up rather than the people on the other side. In Newton Geiszler’s mind melds with Kaiju, a solution to closing all rifts could have been revealed. The Category 5 Kaiju could have been the lord and mother of them all, and its defeat the guarantee that no more could be created, or that the remainder would have no motive to continue attacking. Rewriting a few scenes, you could craft several different endings that wouldn’t require nuking the enemy.

It's still a surprisingly haunting moment.
Re-watching the 1954 Godzilla on Friday night brought this all to mind again. If it wasn’t the first, Kaiju film began there, and that film begins with a makeshift hospital laden with bodies, dead parents, irradiated children, and a narrator dazedly waking up in the wreckage. This is the fallout of a radioactive dinosaur, an impossibility that harkened to another impossibility – a mushroom of smoke changing the world.

That’s what any alien survivors of the end of Pacific Rim will wake up to. It feels spiritually wrong.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Do You Segregate Fantasy and Horror?

An iconic Fantasy villain,
with his +1 cleaver.
From an early age I didn't understand most genre distinctions, and especially why stories weren't supposed to enter other territory midway through. This came to mind recently as I struggled over recommending Horror novels to someone who prefers Fantasy. John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, for instance, is technically Fantasy - it's got vampires burning in sunlight like any of a thousand Urban Fantasies. But it's widely recognized as a great Horror novel rather than a great Fantasy novel.

I've asked this on Reddit today, and will ask the blogosphere as well: how do you segregate Fantasy from Horror?

It's tricky for me as they often overlap. Horror is classically defined by the emotions it inspires in the audience (dread, tension, fear), whereas Fantasy is classically defined by things we believe to be unreal existing in the story (dragons, magic swords, other worlds). The presence of zombies doesn't make something Horror novel: Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel has zombies and is alternately slotted as Comedy, Mainstream and Fantasy. You only get Zombie Horror by doing the right things with them, but if you write a Medieval world with flying wyrms, you can't escape the Fantasy label. 

Herein lies the trick, because a genre about audience emotions can overlap with a genre about items at any time, but people will still consider something Horror rather than Fantasy.

I’d argue that Pennywise and Jason Voorhees are Fantasy characters you could slot into a RPG system. Many of our scariest ideas as a fiction-loving culture are intrinsically fantastical ones we still irrationally fear in the right contexts. Paranormal Activity even has a magic system by which its demon operates, though interestingly, it’s figuring out that system that adds much of the tension to the early movies.

Yet works like Stephen King's Misery and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho don't need any otherworldly justification. We know Horror isn’t always fantastical, just as what we usually call Fantasy doesn’t bring Horror to mind, even when Jon Snow is cornered by a wight. 

So what makes you think of a favorite book or movie as one genre?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Don't Write This: Fiction in Danger Zones

Senility as wish fulfillment.
I've already written a full review of Jo Walton's My Real Children, but I want to talk about something not in my review, and in no review I've yet read. The novel follows Patricia Cowan as she suffers a peculiar senility, forgetting most of her life, and then seeming to recall two different lives in high detail. Late in the novel, we see how the onset of senility hits her in both lives, and in one her lover dies. Patricia immediately hopes her senility will make her forget the death happened. This excited me. 

For the last two years of his life, I called my grandfather every night to make sure he had at least a little daily contact with a family member. He hated living in an old folks home, and was very demented on top of that. Our nightly contact made him remember me more than the other grandchildren, though there were still calls when he mistook me for his son, friend, and on one night, his mother. Living that intensely with a disability can stifle the way you think about it. It's easier to default to a somber, anodyne mode, both in avoiding conflicts, and in taking your mind off of things. It takes a different mind to see something so painful and be creative with it.

In reading that paragraph of Walton's novel, I wasn't offended. It was enlivening to read someone subvert our default thoughts of dementia, and simultaneously, tap into those desires, because in moments of weakness we've all wanted to forget things. In the moment, I could only compare it to FX's Archer.

I'm probably the only person to parallel My Real Children and Archer, but one of Archer's great strengths is its anarchic sense of humor. People mistake the show as dark, but it features the lightest hearted graphic tiger mauling I've ever seen. The series uses the drug trade, asphyxia fetishes, eco-terrorism, homophobia and the Oedipal complex as fodder for amazing character humor. It is neither didactic nor cynical; it's creative enough with its deployment of highly flawed characters to avoid offense while depicting the people themselves as intensely offensive. This is great for some audiences (like me), but also stifles how others think about creativity in danger zones, making them think it has to be transgressive.

Archer is often transgressive, as is most comedy about touchy subjects, because that's the easy edge for a laugh. But take George Carlin's early performances of The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television. For the first six he's juvenile and profane – and then he hits "fuck." It's the beginning of life, he says, and yet it's something we use to hurt each other. Very rare for George Carlin, he isn't sure about his footing on a topic, and only has one joke, before saying he'll try to make a full bit out of it next year. He did, and the later versions have never been as interesting to me. That he's vulnerable and unsure about something so touchy, after being so flippant about the other touchy subjects is a haunting deviation.

As I've aged, I've become increasingly attracted to artists who can remain creative in danger zones. It seems either the hardest thing to do (plausible) or so risky to market that it's avoided (also plausible). Certainly if you botch your attempt at a new angle on pedophilia then you can offend a wide audience. But if you try, you might get John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, and that scene wherein the pedophile Hakan rents a child prostitute, but is then so disturbed by how the boy is treated that he tries to give him enough money to run away. This foreshadows the compassionate angle Lindqvist later casts over the vampire/familiar relationship. The compassion of a pedophile in an otherwise uncaring world was so unexpected that it gave me goosebumps, where most vampire stories give me boredom. 

A predator in need of companionship.
These deviations stir me up. In most art you can get a sense of how touchy subjects will be handled; Grimdark Fantasy will probably slouch into rape, and a children's cartoon will probably avoid or didactically instruct about disabilities. Predictable paths are not always wrong, and often writing from a place of reliable sensitivity can avoid opening wounds. But I don't accept the failure state of attempted creativity in a danger zone as loathsome. My general reaction is discomfort for an author who probably knows they screwed up on something meaningful. It reads like seeing someone fall when both of us thought they should have flown.

Maybe I'm so attracted to these because I haven't figured out their parameters yet. There's a strong attraction for some people mired in what we don't yet understand. But to remain flexible with in writing about topics as tender as senility and pedophilia is too much for most artists. It's why most won't touch it at all. That might be why the few that can do it, even for a paragraph are so precious.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bathroom Monologue: End of the World Sale

My nephew forced me to buy the chair at a yard sale. The "End of the World Sale," the plywood sign called it, and the chair was propping up the left side of the sign. The chair had only been owned for a week, real leather on the arm rests, and real steel in the supports. Walnut brown with a red undertone and yellow stitching, not as elegant as black models, but distinct. My nephew said I'd use it in my new writing room. He said I had to get writing again, which was his way of saying I needed to get over my wife. Little did he know, little did I know.

See, the seat cushion sighed when I sat on it for the first time in the morning. The same sound as so many of Ruth's sighs, when she'd get in after double-shifts and plop beside me to boot up Netflix. And I have this habit of leaning to much to the left when I'm hesitating over a plot idea, and every time I did, something in the supports grunted. I swear, grunted, like when Ruth was upset at me, the minor upsets, like I'd forgotten the turn signal on a vacant road, or put the toilet paper in facing the wrong way. I figured the chair had sat on the grass too long and some dew had gotten into whatever gears a chair has.

Then there was this Wednesday night when I wrote. Really wrote, for the first time since I couldn't anymore. A whole short story in one sitting, and I was at least a third of the way into another one when I realized I'd been holding the same posture the whole time, my back never touching the chair. I rubbed my eyelids and reclined, and the chair…

Man, I know that noise. I'm the only person who ever made Ruth make that particular squeal. Me, and peppermint gelato.

I never got it to make that sound again. You know what nephew said? To oil the chair. With peppermint oil. And people ask why Ruth and I never wanted kids.

It's not haunted. I don't know if I believe in hauntings, but I know I don't believe in this one. It's that one time I got the wrong e-mail from my sister-in-law at the wrong time, and I sighed, and I know I sat forward, and air escaped the cushion at the same time, and it sounded like Ruth was sighing with me. And that never happened when she was alive, but I spent the next two hours imagining how it could've. Wishing it did. I slept downstairs instead of in the bed across from the office.

The urge is to write about this, or take it as a sign and write about Ruth. Except I can't start a paragraph about her without devolving into how much I fucked hate and don't understand what are aneurysms are, and I'd need to research them, and I can't enter that word into Google. I can't bear the sound the chair might make, or that it might not make a sound afterward. That it might go as quiet as a floor model.

Anyway, I'm writing again. Three terrible short stories, and now something that's inflating into a novella. The chair has sounded like she was giggling at three parts so far. It's about the things you might find at an end of the world sale.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

This House That Hunts Vampires For You

The modern world has not done enough to safeguard against vampires. The corrupt the young and drink the old, but the bravest hunters still travel in Trans Ams and fight on even footing with these monsters. That’s why we’re introducing a new product: your house.

LoreHouse ™ is not a mobile home you drag on a trailer hitch. No Sir or Madame, this is a titanium-reinforced domicile, coming in one- and two-story models, mounted on indestructible chicken legs using our patented Baba Yaga technology. Not only is the house capable or pursuing and crushing any folklore you encounter, but by becoming your new legal residence, it is impossible for biters to enter unbidden. Simply leave the front open and any undesirables that accidentally fall inside will combust.

Ever wished you had more silver nitrate or crucifixes as you were stranded in a wheat field, surrounded by bat noises? With LoreHouse ™, you’ll never worry you left something at home. Home will come with you, ensuring you’re equipped and have had a good night’s sleep before you stake your claim.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Last Murder Mystery You'll Ever Need

How impractical would it be to get Angela Lansbury, Tony Shalhoub, David Suchet, Emily Deschanel and Benedict Cumberbatch to star in an Expendables-esque murder mystery*? Each playing peculiar and familiar personalities, if not necessarily named "Monk" and "Bones." I promise this isn't an excuse to have an 88-year-old Lansbury hit on Big Ben Cumberbatch, though it is an ulterior motive. No, all the detectives are on the same case to clear their names, because they are the suspects of the same locked-room murder.

Thus each will be suspicious of the others, and some directly investigating their competition. Poirot suspects Monk’s phobias are a fa├žade that would let him get away with it; Lansbury finds Deschanel suspiciously sanguine about the whole thing. But Lansbury was a mystery novelist; could she have cooked up a murder?

Whodunnit? That would spoil the fun. But the victim is most certainly their host: a butler played by Tim Curry.

*Yes, very impractical. I know.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Shame of Flash Thompson

From Pinterest.
Perhaps you know Venom. He’s the coolest Spider-Man villain. Just ask my fifteen-year-old self and he’ll tell you so. Venom has an evil costume that Spider-Man tried to throw away, and it gives him all Spidey’s powers, but also makes him stronger, sneakier, and gives him fangs and tentacles. A consummate 90’s villain.

Perhaps you know there have been multiple Venoms. The current one is Flash Thompson, a bully from Spider-Man’s high school who has since reformed, joined the military, and is using the alien super-costume to help defend his country. He became “Agent Venom.” He just joined the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, that one. 

Hasbro made a prestige action figure of him. Then they decided not to sell it, probably because of his niche appeal. You read the above paragraph, right? Nobody cared.

Except I cared. The costume was cool, okay? I don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about Hasbro and Marvel recently agreeing to sell Agent Venom exclusively at one retailer.

What retailer would you pick to sell a superhero toy? Toys R Us? Target?

Try Walgreens. Not Wal-Mart. Walgreens, the chain pharmacy you can’t tell apart from CVS and Rite-Aid, is the exclusive home of Flash Thompson Venom

So I went to my local Walgreens, because that’s where I’m at in my life. I checked their toy aisle, which was more of a toy rack. There were some Ninja Turtles, Batmen and football supplies. No Marvel goodies at all.

Before I slinked away, I approached a staffer in a lavender scrub, who was re-stocking the energy bars. She immediately perked up and asked if she could help with anything.

“Do you have a Spider-Man toy called ‘Agent Venom?’” I asked.

She looked blank at me, like for a moment she’d forgotten how to be human. Then she smirked. “Black Spider-Man?”

“Yes,” I said. “Black Spider-Man.”

She led me to the freezer cases. Propped up beside the case was a cardboard box full of Flash Thompson Venoms. Dozens of their tentacles pointed at us from behind plastic wrap.

The clerk made a show of handing me one of them. I thanked her, and slinked to Check-Out.

It feels like a universal truth. Flash Thompson, a non-entity turned into a non-entity hero, then turned into non-entity merchandise you can only buy next to the freezers, far from the toy aisle of a non-entity pharmacy most people don’t even know sells toys. It’s likely that more people in my town will read the name “Agent Venom” on their way to grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s than will ever read it in a comic book.

Now he’s sitting on my desk. We have a lot to talk about.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Happy Birthday: In Defense of the Worst Year of My Adult Life

At the last hospital visit before my birthday, the nurse said I’d had a bad year. Nurses tend to be far more positive, so when she said that, it stirred me.  In the last couple months my mother, friends, fellow writers, and even acquaintances I didn’t know were following my story said this was a bad year for me. I don’t want to agree.

I turn 33 on Thursday. Last week I realized that will mean it’s been twenty years of this neuromuscular syndrome. For our anniversary, my body began rejecting medication, and the latest thing the doctor put me on only endows me with new and unwanted side-effects. Much of 2014 was waking up every two hours with muscle spasms, of being unable to think straight, and being so beat down I couldn’t even write anymore. Family begged me to take it easy on myself, to just take May easy. May slips so easily into June, especially when all you do is suffer.

Part of me knows I’ve done more than that. As my mind’s been bogged down by pain, I reach for oversimplifications more than I ever used to let myself. Depression is alleged to work like that. So I dwell:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking through a nursing home after hours

Walking through a nursing home after hours, the halls are empty but full of our sounds: generators, air pumps, washers. It's a symphony exclusively associated with human presence. Disorients when it all plays in absence of voices, footfalls and clothes swishing. This is probably what so many Horror movies/games/books strive for in mood, and I can see how it might be creepy, but it's not. It's a tickle, like my brain is waiting for society to load in with the rest of this setting.

Monday, August 11, 2014

LineCon to Otakon: A Photo Diary of My Bad Choices

It was Thursday in Baltimore, and I got in line for Otakon at around 6:45 PM. I was hungry, but figured I'd wait an hour, get my ticket and then grab dinner. After half an hour of weird line etiquette, which snaked in inexplicable loops in front of the lobby entrance, the people behind me started getting particularly angry. They bailed to get food, while I brought out my phone. I thought it would be funny to catch what they missed.

The line eventually curved around the left side of the building, where we saw it eventually snaked again and brought everyone back in the opposite direction. I tried to see where it was going to turn around again...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I haven’t read most of the great books, or, Doing the Diligence

A fun game at conventions is to dance around what you haven’t read. There are so many nerds who get so little face-time validation elsewhere that they’re quick to condescend and lecture on behalf of the Great Roberts Heinlein and Jordan. This leads many con-goers faking having read books and participating in empty conversations. I’m not sure who it’s fun for, but it must be fun given how frequently it happens.

A game I play at conventions is confession. Bring up an old Jack Vance? I’ll admit to never having read it and ask what spoke to you about it. I’ll confess to never having read Theodore Sturgeon or Octavia Butler, or only having read Samuel Delany’s non-fiction, or only the first book of Wheel of Time and Ender’s Game. The fun of this exercise is watching people around me relax, because by going first (and going at all), I’ve let them give up pretense. Tension leaves their shoulders as they realize it’s okay.

My excuses are legion. I didn’t grow up with LeGuin and Zelazny, and only ever heard of G.K. Chesterton after I graduated college. I’ve gone out of my way to collect books by canonical authors in order to catch up – what I call “doing the diligence” – which yields a mixed bag of results. LeGuin and Zelazny amaze me, but if I never read another Asimov short story that’s a thin fictional veil over a science lesson, I’ll be fine.

My troubles are compounded by interests in literary fiction, which has its own far broader canons around the world. The many years I spent reading Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and various translations of The Divine Comedy seem to be the same time others were getting familiar with The Sword of Shannara (only read the first one and can’t remember it, sorry). And then there are all those superhero comics that ate up my adolescence, though they seem to be more useful now that Marvel films are dominating the earth. Don’t get me started on Beta Ray Bill.

Nor have I have I given up my other loves. I’ll get to A Canticle for Liebowitz, but I’m probably going to read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel first. So maybe I’ll always be behind, but that’s not always bad.

I own it, but...
As frustrating as it can be to listen to geniuses dissect apparently great works I’ve never heard of, this slower pace has also yielded great pleasures. I’m not sure I would have appreciated the works of Shirley Jackson as a teenager, though having started reading her a few years ago with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she is now one of the most inspiring authors in my life. So there’s the frustration of finding two more important books for every one I knock down, this hydra of literacy, but there is also the wonder of finding true masterpieces vetted by decades of readership.

It may just be the way I look at things, but I am far happier to have read Lord of Light late than never at all. No one I know of writes this way today, and as far as I’ve read, no one else used to, not even Zelazny.

If you’re curious, the next authors I intend to do the diligence on are Lois McMaster Bujold and Samuel Delany. I’m told I’ll love Nova. The two keep getting postponed because I’ve taken such a long detour through Jo Walton, even though she so strongly recommends both of them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Three Positive Things in Three Days, and Cheating

This wasn't my best week. Starting Monday and hitting hard Tuesday, my body started rejecting my new medication. I've only gotten some clarity in the last day or so, and am struggling for productivity. I see the doctor for the next consult on Thursday.

In related news, Ross Dillon cheated recently. He was tagged in a Facebook game to post "three positive things for three days," and he posted nine all at once. He's a man after my own heart.

I read his list minutes after finishing a short story and was quite exhausted. I played along. No reason not to be positive here for the span of nine items.

1. Marathoning the first season of Lost.

2. A writer I respect saying he was compelled to stay up late to read to the end of a story he beta read for me.
3. Ice cream cakes.

4. Homemade ice cream cake substitutes.
5. Grilling hamburgers.
6. People who smile when the rain reaches them.
7. Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic.
8. Telltale's The Walking Dead game.
9. Hearing the version of the ending theme of Naoki Urasawa's Monster, an instrumental song which always creeeped me out, and finding the lyrics inspirational and reassuring. 

I confess just listening to For The Love of Life cold won't have the same effect.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The ideas we discard are not wasted

I've had this short story idea for over a month and have been gathering good lines, ideas and character moments. Today I finally had the strength to begin writing it. Five scenes in I realized two thirds of my existing material won't make it into the story. It wasn't a waste - it was a cocoon from which the fiction is emerging.

In related news: I'm writing again. I've written more in the last two weeks than in the previous two months. God willing, this short will be out to a market by the end of the month, and by then we'll be off to the races.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Readercon Wrap Up

I wanted to do a Readercon post earlier but was wiped from my trip. It was a miracle I didn't fall asleep as soon as I plopped into the car, but I didn't. The convention was a wonderful success and I'm glad to report my health held up nearly the entire time. The new medication seems to be taking to my system. The ability to think through the pain and enjoy so much good company made this feel like another world from the last two months.

If you're in the New England area, I strongly recommend Readercon. It's an excellent small-scale convention with a fiction focus that attracts an impressive number of accomplished and excellent panelists. Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear are regulars though had to miss this year; this year saw the premiere of Max Gladstone. There was at least one rep from Crossed Genres and a significant presence of Strange Horizons folk, as well as Tor's Ellen Datlow. It was easy to bump into Kameron Hurley and Peter Straub in the lobby and simply chat with them. You don't get that kind of access and informality with such guests at most cons.

It also led to many fine panels, my favorite being back-to-back discussions of Magic: "Difference Between Magic and Science" and "When the Magic Returns," which contrasted magic and science, and then explored narratives of magic brought into the modern world. Lev Grossman and Max Gladstone were on both line-ups as their incomparably erudite selves, digging into the differences in how we experience our world and expect the magical. Even the greatest technology can feel clunky and exclusionary, whereas magic, with its precious commodity of being fictional, can meet a spiritual need the real world can't.

Julia Sidorova was the most impressive of anyone here for me, a Russian writer positing that technologies like a cell phone are "a science experiment anyone can perform," unifying us as experimenters, and soon openly disagreeing with the guest of honor about our place in evolution. Can you imagine the intelligence and confidence it takes to argue with a guest of honor about the nature of the universe in front of a crowd in a second language? Her approach to science has me hunting for her debut novel.

But the main draw of Readercon was face-time with friends. I skipped several panels simply to hang out in the bar with authors and Viable Paradise graduates, and when I could get up early enough, spent time in the lobby chatting with con-goers. It was a completely different experience from last year's Readercon where I knew few people; knowing folks enables conversations that rapidly expand into clusters. The sad point of this is when other con-goers linger nearby, looking and listening, but can't jump the social hurdle into joining. I know I'm awful at inserting myself into other people's conversations, and you never want to be intrusive. When I could, I'd reach out to such folks. As con-communities, I'm still looking for ways to systematically open us up to more low-key exchanges. Otakon, with its younger demo and enormous attendance, seems more natural at this.

And seeing friends after the crap of the last two months was worth every penny and midnight muscle spasm attack. Mostly I fraternized with Viable Paradise graduates, the first time I've seen several of them since the workshop itself. David Twiddy even organized a massive dinner for professors and grads on Saturday. What a mensch. Events like those enabled my personal highlights, as there's nothing better than getting smart people you like to double over laughing. Jokes about Christ Chex and dinosaur fellatio... well, clearly some of the old me is still around.

There are some sweet photos of highlights, like catching one of my writing mentors in the middle of a magic trick, but this laptop doesn't have an SD card reader. So perhaps another time. For now, I've got to catch up on sleep.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

ReaderCon 2014

A short update this evening: despite my health, I will be at Readercon.

It feels like my system is responding to the new medication. I've already written more in the last three days than in the last month, and I was actually able to do some chores tonight.

Kids: when you get old, you'll feel pride in chores. Sorry.

This means I'm good to go to my first convention since February. Readercon is a lovely little lit-focused SF/F convention in Burlington, MA. No, not Vermont. Burlington, Massachusetts. Yes, my friends were confused by it too.

It attracts a wonderful collection of authors. While I'm bummed to see Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch will be absent, Max Gladstone is making what I think is his first appearance. I just finished his Three Parts Dead, which is quite fun and I'd love to pick his brain about it.

So, I'm packing and hope to see people there.I may be scarce at the evening parties, but I'll be as social as I can. Feel free to say hello. If my health is terrible, I'll apologize and excuse myself. Allegedly, I'm very friendly at these sorts of things.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Purgatory of Illness (and Jokes)

This picture will make more sense
by the end of the essay.

We weren’t sure what was wrong, but this week doctors believed either my body was rejecting all of my medication or I’d had a nervous breakdown. Even if you know nothing about my condition, we can all agree that if you can’t tell which of those two things is wrong, you’re in deep.

If you know nothing of my condition, it’s possibly because I scarcely write about it. It’s never appeared in my fiction, rather drawing me to sympathy and study of the illnesses and disabilities of others. But ever since I was thirteen and the recipient of some radical medical malpractice, I have had a crap immune system and have been in constant pain in every part of my body. Most recently, it began taking my hearing and my ability to focus thought.

If you didn’t know that every time we’ve ever talked I’ve secretly been in pain, it’s because I’ve been conditioning myself since puberty to manage the load. Two months ago, when I could no longer speak in coherent sentences, and when walking to the mailbox became too much of an ordeal for me to imagine (literally: I could no longer think straight enough to envision the trip), pain management was all I had left. Empathy seemed to evaporate from my mind. Beneath compassion, humor and creativity, all I had was the ability to not lose my grip on my body.

Today, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of having held onto that much when my entire nervous system turned against me.

At the time, I had no idea what was going on and felt guilty for bothering so many people about it. This is why The Bathroom Monologues have been particularly quiet for the last two months. I’ve completed no piece of fiction in the entire period; editing a novel became excruciating in ways I wish upon none of you. That little review of X-Men: Days of Future Past went up a week late because it took me an entire week to type that many coherent sentences.

If you’ve made it through those five paragraphs, then please bear with me for this: I don’t want you to apologize for my pain. Some of the worst parts of the last two months have been people frowning and trying to commiserate with me. All it does it perpetuate mood and fatalism.

Instead, join me in regarding the few instances of hope people gave me by being ridiculous. The first time it felt like anything could improve was walking through a Wal-Mart (of all places on earth). Out of the freezer section came a cart, pushed by a teenaged girl in huge, furry boots. Sitting inside the wire cart (not on the baby seat, but lounging inside the food carriage) was another teenaged girl in huge, furry boots, with as demure a grin as grins can allow within their city limits. They were half-grown adults enjoying something ridiculous, chatting about what to put on their Eggos.

I’m pretty that the next time I smiled was in learning someone had the gall to name their band “The Style Council.” Or it was a reclusive friend linking me to the strangest Vines he’d found that month.

Of everyone, my mother was the most worried for me. It’s something moms excel at, isn’t it? Some days she’d invite me out, I think just to give me a change of scenery. Funny to think asking someone to drop off the recycling is altruistic, yet in my easily overwhelmed state, I showed up to the car half an hour late. I was sure she’d be furious, and was prepared to apologize into her frustrations.

Instead she had found a rope swing and was happily spinning around a tree in the yard. She didn’t even hear me come out. She reminded me what a damned good role model is.

This is what I need, and in bulk. Don’t wish me well, and don’t put on grave tones, and don’t say the hardest part is over or is yet to come. I’ll take your prayers (and thank you, Father Andre and David Twiddy – that really did mean something to me), but I’ll also be glad to see you decorating this world with quirks. It reminds me of my purpose.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Haunted House, Holy House - #fridayflash

Sometimes you call a setting evil, or hallowed. There’s good houses and bad, at least according to home owners associations. But there’s this one house crumbling on the city limits, near the Target no one wants there, the last house on the right. The one made from white bricks that have yellowed with too many seasons, and that everybody says they’ve seen angels in the windows of, even if they don’t have a photo. People park outside but you seldom see the lights on.

People still aren’t sure what that house is. It does something to you, to be sure, though I think most of the stories are lies. Everybody wants to say they stayed there and were molested by angels or something.

The first documented tenant of the house lost his mind and said he was walking on air. This was in the eighties. Some of the time he was right, and there’s ample video of the man walking upwards of ten feet above the floor of his room at the sanitarium. His problem is that he always thinks he’s walking on air, even when he’s not. There’s a claim that the airport twenty miles from the sanitarium sees more accidents whenever he’s hysterical. There’s a scientific study going on to check this.

There are a couple of people who claim the house turned them into geckos, but their visits are unsubstantiated. The next documented tenant is a woman who rented the house for four consecutive weekends in the early nineties, and claims to have used a door in its basement to transport herself to Mars, from which she has returned with four garbage bags full of artifacts from Mars’s ancient civilizations. Whenever she is asked why astronauts have never found remains of such civilizations, she responds, “My relics aren’t from our Mars.”

The third documented visitor grew wings. They’re very pretty, turquoise and oily mauve, though they’re flightless and don’t fit in her smart car. Skeptics say she might have always had wings.

The fourth person to stay there was cured of her manic depression and catastrophic writers block. He’s self-published four books in the last thirteen months and has bought his way out of debt. He just paid off his parents’ house. This convinced many people that the Awful House was a miracle, even though the man’s books are mostly about glorifying violence. Copies were found on the phones of two school shooters. There’s a serious question of how much this has helped his sales.

In fact, it can’t be proven that the original documented man wasn’t a deluded telekinetic before his stay. Skeptics dispatched three people with fully recorded histories of normal behavior to reside in the house. They livestreamed their entire stay and reported the week so uneventful they wound up playing tech support.

The streams captured all of their heads detaching at various points and flying about the house. Two of the three were seen to go invisible at seemingly random intervals, while the third seemed to become super-visible, appearing in no less than three parts of the house simultaneously. There is at least video of him talking to a second self who’s on the roof, cleaning the chimney.

But if there’s an oddity to the skeptics’ tale, it’s that they don’t believe it. Given audio and video evidence, the threesome routinely debunk or cast doubt that the events were anything more than digital tricks. They claim no memory of random beheadings or invisibilities. Since their stay, they’ve also lost belief in many other things, such as that anyone actually disbelieve in manmade global warming, or the George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. In fact, they are skeptical to the point of certainty that Bush was never President of the United States.

A second threesome of skeptics spent a second week in the house, but went missing. There is no video or audio evidence as to where they disappeared, causing many internet commenters to joke about how tame a fate the house gave them. They were hoping for gargoyles to eat them or something. Gargoyles show in the backyard every so often. The trust pays me to clean them when they appear.

Is it an evil house? Since it started getting famous, there’ve been murders there. In 2011, ten kids were chopped up inside, stalked by the shadow of a coat rack. That time police beat the skeptics to the punch, and found the two tweens who’d faked all the videos. The house hadn’t done anything.

Seven of the kids came back to life, discovered in an attic closet, their graves inexplicably empty. Three graves, though, remain full. The house isn’t saying why.

Personally, I still can’t tell what sort of house that makes it. I’m only sure that, if there’s ever been a problem with that place, it’s the tenants.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An Alternate History of Friday the 13th

Anyone who cares already knows that Jason isn't the killer in Friday the 13th. It's his mother, avenging his drowning. He then rises from the dead in the sequels with decreasingly comprehensible continuity, but how funny would Friday the 13th Part 2 have been if it was just about teens making the tarnished camp work? Camp Crystal Lake has an awful reputation, but just like most real life sites of horrors, there isn't another massacre. Just teens with nowhere else to go trying to make cash out of a camp.

Then Friday the 13th Part 3 features too many rich people buying lakefront property, and the counselors wishing a serial killer would whack them. But he doesn't. The zoning board is the villain. It's probably a bad Comedy, nothing like the next movie.

Friday the 13th Part 4 was the film no one expected to be nominated for an Oscar. It opens with kids playing in the lake while their parents ignore them, referencing the drowning of Jason Voorhees. What we don't expect is the children discovering Jason's body. It's not a monster, but the fish-eaten remains of a child no older than themselves, and the public discovery shakes the Crystal Lake community. More Stand By Me than a Slasher flick. Adults are finally brought to trial over negligence, and children reckon with how the adults in their lives haven't prepared them for mortality. The parents reckon on their shortcomings. "We are all the shadow of Jason" becomes a national slogan, a t-shirt, and a meme before the internet.

Part 5 is the movie everyone said you couldn't make, because how could you do a sequel to the deconstruction of the American dream? But it is made, and it sucks. It's a clumsy teen romance that the director later apologizes for.

We loosely call the next film Part 6, but it was actually a reboot given the minimalist title "13." Its cardinal sin is attempting to re-tell too much in one movie, containing extensive prequel material of Jason's tortured childhood, his death, his mother's rampage, and the pathos of his body's discovery years later. There's so much in it that it never delivers on its individual elements, and it never settles on a tone or characterization. It was the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom of camping movies.

It's a strange alternate universe, probably the same in which Transformers is a series of educational engineering videos, and Godzilla is about the contributions of Asians to establishing the fossil record. In that world, Friday the 13th still isn't a particularly beloved series, but everyone agrees it's still go more merit than the Jungian snoozers of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - My favorite superhero movie in years

X-Men: Days of Future Past is my favorite comic book movie since the summer of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Or since Persepolis, depending if you count that wonderful adaptation. Days of Future Past juggles a lot and does it all well, which is too rare in this period of two-hour genre movies. Why does Legendary's Godzilla need to be two hours? Hell if I know. But this movie is about a war spanning two generations, with time travel, crazy mutant powers, conspiracy theories, and the politics of building giant robots. Not only did every minute feel worthwhile, but I eagerly waited after the credits on a full bladder for just thirty seconds more of a teaser for the next one.

In a future extended from X-Men 1, 2 and 3, the last surviving mutants fight off Sentinels, robots that have ravaged the planet to exterminate them. They send Wolverine back in time to stop the creation of Sentinels, to the 1970's of X-Men: First Class, where Xavier, Magneto and Mystique have split three different ways. Future-Wolverine must unite them in order to prevent the Sentinel program that will otherwise kill them all.

Remember the best part of First Class? It's a whole movie now.

It's the first time since X-Men 2 that the series has felt like it had both its heart and ability. Mutants are serving in the Vietnam War and being sold out by their government; Xavier is struggling with the loss of his legs and loved ones. The visions of Sentinels wiping out people in the future are genuinely disturbing, and so you'll think it's purely a heavy movie, yet you know you're in good hands because it maintains a sense of humor and humanity. Wolverine's first pop into the past is awkwardly hilarious; Quicksilver, who can run at Mach-5, deconstructs a gunfight in bullet time to "Time in a Bottle." The funny and quiet moments ground us in a sense of why the past is worth preserving. It's not just Terminator-like fear of a painful future, but preservation of the good in life.

The best part of the movie is its subtlety.
It helps that the actors are leaps improved from First Class, and that they get to play off of Jackman, who is still a snarky godsend as Wolverine. Fassbender has gravity as Magneto, more certain than ever that fear is necessary to cow the human population. McAvoy's Xavier feels like less of a put-on, now consumed with his injuries and losses, becoming a junky for a drug that suppresses his telepathy while letting him walk; he can either cut himself off from every mind on the planet and pretend to be physically able, or open himself up to both physical and mental pain in order to grow. It amounts to a brief scene that half the commercials have spoiled, speaking to his future self, and in agony, realizing he might someday become the sort of person who could help himself. As someone who's been in excruciating health lately, it quickly became one of my favorite uses of time travel in cinema.

Mystique is one of the high points and the movie's big problem. On the one hand, it's great that X-Men hierarchy is challenged by a woman who agrees with neither Xavier nor Magneto, becoming a third pillar whose importance to the past I won't spoil. She's the movie's only lead female, as opposed to the three lead males, and of the four leads, Jennifer Lawrence is essentially wearing blue paint. That comes to feel gross and male-gazey, and the movie tries to skirt it by occasionally shapeshifting her into someone else who has more clothing. It wasn't so onerous in the first movies because she was alongside leads Rogue, Jean Grey, and Storm. Now she's on screen more and there are times when it seems producers are photoshopping shadows onto her to hide butt crack.

My sister asked if the blue lady was in this one.
Jennifer Lawrence seems much more natural as the character, who's written as both super-spy and the dissenting third opinion between accommodating-Xavier and militant-Magneto. There is a moment where a single tear from her means as much as all of Xavier's wailing. Mystique also has that sweet fight choreography back from the early films, swinging around her opponents like props in ways that embarrass any battles in First Class. Before this movie, I didn't get rumors of a Mystique solo picture. Afterwards, I was begging for it. It's just that her being borderline naked feels unfair (although you do see more of Jackman's flesh than you'd think.).

One hopes that with Singer back in control that gender dynamics will smooth out in future films. It's not as though X-Men is suffering from any shortage of great female characters (bring in Dust whenever you like). Perhaps that's Days of Future Past's greatest gift to me: as my favorite superhero flick in years, it also left me feeling like they'd get better from here.
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