Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Crushing Weight of Canon

Scott D. Parker

At my book club this past Tuesday, we discussed Andy Weir’s new novel, ARTEMIS. Generally, we all liked it. The grades for all five of us averaged out to somewhere in the B range. One of our fellows—the one who gave it the lowest grade—said this about the book: without the nifty descriptions of the workings of Artemis, the only city on the moon, the book and plot are quite slight.  Another person asked what has become, perhaps, an obvious question in this modern day and age: Did we think ARTEMIS had any connection or lived in the same universe as Weir’s other novel, THE MARTIAN?

The question led us down a rabbit trail of observations. ARTEMIS is a slim book and it achieved a good blend of world building without pages and pages of backstory and exposition. The talk quickly went back to the classic SF novels of the 1950s through the 1970s when major classics like RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA were not very thick. More importantly with RAMA, not all questions were answered. Why? One possibility was that Arthur. C. Clarke wanted readers to think, to wonder, and, perhaps, to finish the book each in their own way.

Cut to modern times. For this mental exercise, I’m landing more or less at 1980. In the past four decades, we have seen the rise of thicker and thicker genre novels with tons of world building. Some readers are cool with that. I am, too, but only to a degree. In addition, there was the rise of role playing game source books, with every minute detail laid out for the players to pore over, memorize, and internalize. More and more media products—books, comics, movies, TV, games—all began to have their own internal source bibles, a canon. The original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories are called “The Canon.” Serialized TV shows began to have an overarching “mythology” and writers of all stripes were steered back into the canonized boundaries.

That’s all well and good and I frankly love it when a later-season episode of The X-Files refers back to something I remembered from season 1. I’m a fan. I dig it. Ditto for Batman comics and Marvel movies and even modern-day Doc Savage novels. Speaking of Savage, when Philip Jose Farmer went to craft his "biography" of Doc, Farmer said he had the devil of a time because he was having to codify—Canonize—the work of a dozen authors over 181 novels all to meet a deadline.

But along the way, The Canon (and here, I use it in a general sense for any given property) begins to weigh down imagination. The most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was, I think, burdened with the crushing weight of Canonized Star Wars. Force projection? That can’t be done. Force Space Flying? That can’t be done. Ships jumping to light speed against and through another ship? That can’t be done.

Why? Because canon dictated it.

Well, so what?

On the one hand, director and writer Rian Johnson probably butted up against established canon and had someone tell him ‘no.’ On the other hand, his decision was to burst the bubble of canon and tell a story outside the canon. Granted, he has now made new canon and has expanded the boundaries of what can be done with Star Wars, but that’s kind of what I’m talking about. The boundaries of certain properties get so rigid that someone needs to come along and just blow them up and reform them anew. Give writers a chance to expand a canon while still respecting it. More often than not, the breath of fresh air given a property will satisfy.

Oh, and we all agreed that ARTEMIS and THE MARTIAN are likely not in the same universe. We all agreed that it was a good thing. Two stories, well told, and each could be enjoyed on their own.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Perfect Stranger -- Review

Recently, I had a few long drives lined up so I picked an audiobook. The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda. It had a bit of a rocky start, but once it got me hooked, I was really hooked. The book handles a lot of things that I'd like to see more of. Leah Stevens' main issue through the entire book is that no one believes a thing she says. The catalyst that sets everything in motion is a story she didn't tell. The thing she thought no one would be believe - and as her fraught relationships with the police, her coworkers, and even her students play out, it's like a running commentary on why she was right to lie.

Without getting into spoilers it's difficult to describe the nuance with which Miranda handles questions of trust and female friendship. Each person Leah interacts with, from her mother to her coworker across the hall seems to represent a different type of friendship, a different level of trust. As she discovers how long she's been lied to, how hard she's been screwed over, she still has to contend with the fact that most people think it's more believable that a woman is losing her mind than that something bad happened to her.

One thing the book doesn't do is give a nice redemption arc. Three of the major players in the story are starting over after something bad has happened in their lives, and one is dealing with the immediate aftermath of a life changing tragedy. Questions are raised about the parts each of them played in screwing their own lives, and the lives of other's up. But this book isn't about any of those characters fixing their shit. It's not an ending where everyone gets their name cleared and their old jobs back. I think that really works for the story. Miranda sets up a very realistic world, where people are afraid of not being believed, afraid to come forward, afraid to move on. A world without easy answers.

There is a resolution, and a good one, but it's not a Hollywood happy ending. I won't ruin it, but Miranda seems to be interested in how people choose and accept their fates, rather than how people triumph over old mistakes.

It took several drives and a few laundry folding sessions to get through the audiobook and get to the end. I found myself turning to the audiobook the way I often turn to paper books - eager to hear what happens next, in a way I don't often find with audio. There are moments in the story that frustrate - people making nonsensical decisions, red herrings that aren't dismissed in a satisfactory way - but it works in a story where the characters actually behave like real people.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

No One Wants To Read Your Book

Note: If you believe that small presses exist to get new voices heard then this is a post for you. If you think that small presses and their writers should make money – and not just beer money – then you aren't going to like this post.

By David Nemeth

Yesterday a couple of writer friends recommended  J. David Osborne's podcast where he interviews Michael J Seidlinger, a writer and co-publisher of Civil Coping Mechanism. If you haven't heard of Osborne, he is also a writer and the publisher of Broken River Books. Osborne and Seidlinger's conversation meanders a bit in the beginning but then around the thirtieth minute, the conversation becomes a master class in small press publishing.

I'm a big fan of the small presses.1 I'd rather read a small-press book than a book from a big publisher. I appreciate the attention to detail as well as the fact that the owner is publishing a book they absolutely believe in.  Small presses exist to give a voice to unknown and little-known writers, writers who likely won't get closer to HarperCollins or Penguin than the aisles of their local Barnes & Noble.

It is the community of readers that allow small presses to survive. All small-press publishers need to release quality books to keep their readers interested which then allows the publishers to take chances on unknown writers. Readers are also a small-press publisher's mouthpiece, recommending writers and books to friends via social media and Amazon reviews. Small presses are much like the independent record labels of the 80s and 90s. If they keep on putting out a something daring and good, the community will keep on coming back.

What else makes a small press different from the bigger publishers? Lower costs. As Osborne explains in the podcast, his only cost is the cover. Everything else – editing, formatting, etc. – he does for free. He's not getting rich at this. He's doing this because he wants to get the book out and in front of readers. Osborne admits he won't be a public-relations machine for your book, nor will he guarantee you royalties that will allow you to buy a good bottle of bourbon.

The argument that Osborne and Seidlinger put forward is that a small press' job is to make a good book available. That's it.

The question all publishers ask is: How do you do that?

The answer: by experimenting.

A few weeks ago, Broken River Books released Seidlinger's Standard Loneliness Package which has one striking feature . . . okay, two if you count Matthew Revert's cover: its price. Osborne and Seidlinger agreed to sell in paperback at what they called "ramen money," or the cheapest price Amazon will allow them to sell a printed book: $5.99.

Their plan worked, as they immediately hooked me and I didn't realize it. When I saw Seidlinger's book on Amazon for $5.99, I bought it without reading the description – all I knew was the publisher and the odd cover. Hell, I had never heard of Seidlinger before, but a paperback for $5.99 was an offer I wasn't going to pass up.

It seems that ramen pricing is working. At the time of the podcast, two weeks after the book's release, they had sold one hundred paperbacks of Standard Loneliness Package. At the writing of this post, Osborne reported that they've sold two hundred copies, and that he expects to hit two hundred and fifty after a month of sales. This experiment is getting the book in the hands of readers. And isn't that what all real writers want?

In talking to other small-press publishers and writers, the sales numbers for Standard Loneliness Package are good (or, as one publisher said, "crazy good.") As a comparison, one crime-fiction publisher told me that they sell about five hundred paperbacks per title in a year, some as low as one hundred but others nearing two thousands and their paperbacks average around $11. One author told me that their titles have sold approximately five hundred copies each and that most sold at events rather than Amazon and other outlets.2

Why do small presses continue to emulated big publishers when the resources aren't there; it doesn't make sense. Osborne and Seidlinger say, and I believe rightly so, that small presses need to do things differently and that the most important thing is to get the books in people's hands. Writers and publishers should look to other arts, media and businesses to find new ways of delivering books and connecting with their audiences. There are things many of us already do: Noir @ the Bar, StorySLAM, podcasts, KindleUnlimited, blogs and Creative Commons licensing. But we mustn't stop there. We need to look at new marketing ideas, Progressive Web Apps, Portable Web Publications, new distribution channels and continue to search for new and challenging writers.

The advantage small presses have over their behemoth brethren is the ability to experiment and even make mistakes (hopefully small ones). This is where success is found; change is the strength of a small presses.3

1 In the podcast, Seidlinger says that a small press has one or two people editing and publishing books and an indie press may have a small staff on salary.
2 I've been focusing on paperbacks instead of e-books because, as much as I like the ease of ebooks, the activity of reading seems to be drifting back to the physical book.
3 One of the arguments I will hear regarding this post is that I don't want writers or publishers to make money. That's not the case as there are plenty of ways to do this with mainstream publishers.  If money is your concern, a small press is not the correct avenue for publishing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Another Oscars Post

Being a writer, it won't surprise you that for me story comes first.

Character should build story, or story should rely on character--really the same thing--but when story fails, for me the movie can become very tedious. Pity my wife Sarah, who has to hear me sighing and folding my arms when the story goes belly-up and the fish starts to stink.*

I can forgive a threadbare story like Mad Max: Fury Road if it makes sense and characters behave the way they do for a reasons, even if that reason is not immediately clear. If they are evil because you need a villain, that is just lazy writing. If they fall in love because you need a romance, ditto. I love fairy tales and cartoons, but even their characters have motivations. The wolf is hungry. The witch is insulted in Sleeping Beauty. The coyote has a gadget fetish and his holistic doctor said road runner gizzards will cure his impotence.

Okay, one of those is contrived, but you get the point. Poor Wile E. would've been a nicer coyote if he'd been born after Yohimbine was prescribed for erectile dysfunction.

My favorite script of the year was Get Out. Horror and comedy get shafted because they look easy to people who haven't tried them. Comedy seems natural, when it takes more work and practice than other forms. Good horror is very tough to pull off. Jordan Peele managed both masterfully in his script, and I am very glad he won for best original screenplay. I would've gone as far as voting for it for best picture, and if it had been released later in the year, it may have had a better shot. It was a phenomenon, and seeing it in theaters was a great experience. Roger Ebert used to say a great film has three great scenes and no bad ones, and Get Out has at least three.

There are characters who seem over the top or bizarre, but every single one of them gets explained, quickly and brilliantly, once we know what's going on. The film bears repeat viewing, and every time I watch it I catch more little touches, subtle choices that all drive the story and make sense within it.

Two films that I really, really, really wanted to like more were Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. I'll start with Martin McDonagh's film about a mother grieving for her daughter's brutal murder and anger over the authorities' inability to catch the killer. It's a good premise, but falls apart almost immediately because of little failures in verisimilitude. I like McDonagh a lot, I loved In Bruges and enjoyed Seven Psychopaths. I think his brother John Michael's The Guard and Calvary are better, but I like both McDonagh brothers. They bring fresh stories to film. Billboards just needed a better edit or rewrite.

The victim is given short shrift. Instead of "Sad Dad" or "Sad Cop" as Christa Faust calls these "dead girl avenger" stories, we get "Sad Mom" and that's not that much of an improvement. The story starts late. If you have five grand laying around, hire your own investigator or coroner instead of buying billboards. And how do three decrepit billboards in the middle of nowhere cost five grand to rent? There are some great performances in the movie. McDormand, Rockwell, Harrelson are all great. There are great scenes. Some criticized Rockwell's redemption. He tortured a black suspect, and he's in general an asshole. I liked the portrayal, they explain his behavior. His redemption begins with aciton and he is not forgiven. No one pats him on the back. His method of obtaining suspect DNA is rather melodramatic and out of character, though. We never hear from his victims.

We never really get a feel of why the investigation went nowhere. So, great scenes: Rockwell and his mom. McDormand, a few. Harrelson's letter to her. His letter to Rockwell is a bad one. I love Peter Dinklage but didn't see the point of making fun of his size and treating him like a joke. And McDormand's co-worker who does jail time for her cheerfully with the cop who abuses black people, and then disappears... how did that get past edits? That could have been a great scene, with her and Rockwell in the jail. Maybe that would have spurred his redemption, instead of catching fire. The worst scene was when the abusive husband grabs McDormand and the son robotically pulls a kitchen knife to protect his mom was comically bad. And I say this as someone who has literally pulled a knife on a drunken boyfriend as a child. Try making it part of someone's character instead of a plot point or a shortcut. How does McDormand go from putting up with that man's violence to firebombing a police station? Does not compute.

Anyhow, it had a lot of good going for it, but it wasn't great. By a director who has made great movies, like In Bruges. Which brings us to the other great director who went to bat with a script that needed rewrites, but won anyway.

Guillermo del Toro should've won a Oscar for Pan's Labyrinth. I can see why so many people love The Shape of Water, it's about lonely people, it pays reverence to old Hollywood style, it has a wonderful cast who play their undeveloped characters to the hilt. Really, did Octavia Spencer have to be a cleaning woman? Is that the only role we'll ever see her in?
Michael Shannon's character is ripped straight from his role in "Boardwalk Empire" without any subtlety, and his portrayal of Zod in Man of Steel was less a comic-book villain that this guy. His character supposedly went to the Amazon alone and brought back the fish god by himself, and just likes torturing him with a cattle prod and expecting him to learn English. I get the references. The scientists never notice that the fish man heals overnight, they just want him so the Russians can't get him, and these stories were lazy in the '80s.

Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins are wonderful lonely people and I can see why they want to protect the strange outsider. I want to protect him, too! But eating eggs isn't really enough. There are touching scenes later, but I must've missed the scene where she sees him and isn't terrified. The great scenes are the flooded apartment, and Jenkins had promise. I'm glad the pie guy didn't beat him up, but he's not the only gay man in a big city, he wouldn't be as lonely as we saw him. (Watch A Single Man or any number of movies...)  It's a movie I really wanted to like. The caper aspects were, but the odd Russian spy subplot could have been completely excised and the time used for character development, which was sorely needed. Instead we get Michael Shannon humping his wife and covering her mouth--an obvious hint that he is going to abuse our mute heroine--but that goes nowhere. And thankfully. He was evil enough without throwing in a rape scene. His abuse of the women at work was believable for the time.

Sally Hawkins is an incredible actor and she really shines in the movie, but she couldn't save it for me. It felt like the plot revolved around having the scene of them swimming in the flooded apartment and having sex, as if sex cured loneliness. And there were no stakes. What if the fishman's blood could cure cancer. and they had him hooked up to a torturous machine? Freeing him would be the ethical thing to do, but the "bad guys" wouldn't be quite so cartoonish. Not saying that would be an instant improvement, but it would give the villain a motivation beyond "I like my new Cadillac."

So yeah, I yucked on a lot of peoples' yum here. If you like the movie, I don't think you are wrong. I just wanted to say why it didn't work for me, and why Get Out did. Even Three Billboards, while it had holes, was never predictable. It was compelling. I knew what would happen in The Shape of Water, there were zero surprises. It was beautiful at times and joyful in others. I liked the very end, but didn't enjoy the ride we took to get there.

*Hell yes that was intentional

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Black Panther vs. Killmonger: Who Wins the Argument?

About three minutes after the Black Panther closing credits ended, when my son and I, still in our seats, were discussing the movie, my son said that one reason he'd liked the movie was because the villain, Killmonger, has really good reasons for what he does. 

"It wasn't like he was totally wrong," my son said, and I agreed.  

The reasons Killmonger gives for why he wants to take and use Wakanda's vibranium, the remarkable metal Wakanda has been relying on down through time, 
keeping to itself in their isolated country, have merit.  Because of this natural resource Wakanda alone has, its people thrive. They have the most advanced technology in the world.  It's a green technology apparently because no country ever has found such a balance between technological advancement and natural beauty.  Humans, animals, and plants live in harmony, untouched by ecological destruction. It’s an earthly paradise, an Afro-futurist's dream. And for generations, because of their isolation, they’ve been able to keep their advanced state a global secret.  Good for them and good for their people. Europe has never encroached on Wakanda for slaves or put it through colonial ravages. It’s a country outside history. But history hasn’t spared the rest of the world, and in places like where Killmonger's from - Oakland, USA - people suffer. In particular, black people suffer, and an African country that could help has never done a thing to benefit anyone outside its own borders.  Killmonger has personal reasons for wanting to eliminate T'Challa, the Black Panther, but his statements about Wakanda's selfishness ring true even to a twelve year old.  In essence, the movie does something not all that common in films: it lays out two sides of an argument in its opposing forces, T'Challa's and Killmonger's, and then it works toward a resolution of that argument. 

Wakanda has a monarchical system that is somewhat militaristic.  Picture a country that has a touch of Kuwait (comfort for all purely because of a natural resource granted the country) and a touch of Sparta (the militaristic aspect and the importance of women as warriors). Picture a country, too, that is fully African in its belief systems and traditions but that is science fiction shiny and clean.  Why would such a place, functioning so well, want to interact with the rest of the world?  When one Wakandan says that they should open up and share their technology with the world, another says that would mean letting in "refugees" and being like everyone else. The implication is that everyone else, in some way, is beneath Wakanda.  Its borders are sealed.  The hostility to refugees hits home; the distaste expressed for them is something any number of real-life government figures might say, here or in Europe.  It smacks of nativism.  "Wakanda forever!"  Yes.  And how about adding, "Wakanda first!"  Of course, this isn't the leader of a western power talking, but an African, so on the other hand, given the continent's history with the outside (meaning Western) world, why should they trust that sharing their most valuable resource will lead to anything good for their country?    

Which brings us to Killmonger.  He makes the case, in his righteous anger, that people oppressed for centuries could be lifted up if Wakandans spread their vibranium wealth.  They sit by in their secluded kingdom while Oakland and places like it rot, and he's got no time for their high-mindedness, their sense of themselves as a privileged civilization.  Soon as he gets to Wakanda, he sees to it that he defeats T'Challa in battle. It's important to note that he does this fairly, as prescribed by custom, so his claim on the throne is legitimate.  But if his basic critique of Wakandan's isolationism is correct, his actions to carry out his agenda are not.  He proves himself a tyrant, not the kind of thoughtful and benign monarch, attached to the ancestors, that Black Panthers should be.  He speaks of the oppression that black people deal with in the United States (and his final words alluding to the Middle Passage are powerful ones), but this is a guy who has been in the US military, as a black ops soldier, and for all his rage at Western oppression, he is utterly American in how he behaves.  He has no respect for anything he encounters in Wakanda, not for their belief systems, their tribal system, nothing.  He burns what he has no need for and mobilizes the Wakandan military to distribute Wakandan weapons throughout the world for the uprising of the oppressed he has planned.  In his own mind, he is a revolutionary. He's crashing the gates of the elite and will bring power to those who never had it.  Or would he?  If he got weapons out of Wakanda to those he wants to have them, what kind of leader would he be?  To all indications, a dictatorial one.  And what's more, he doesn't see the irony.  He comes to an African country full of arrogance, spits on its traditions, and wants to exploit its natural bounty for his own ends.  He is enacting the very pattern inflicted for centuries on Africans by white colonizers. Still, underneath it all, he does have that valid point we were talking about. The core of his argument holds.  Wakanda needs to get beyond its adherence to isolationism.

In the end, T'Challa versus Killmonger, in terms of their ultimate physical battle, you know who's got to win.  The conventions of the narrative demand it.  But the arguments each has brought to the combat, where does that stand?  Black Panther provides an ending that represents a blending of the two positions. It's a fusion, you could say, but there is more of Killmonger in the final product than of T'Challa.  The announcement T'Challa makes in the last scene is an acknowledgment that Killmonger's basic point was right. In effect, T'Challa has adopted Killmonger's platform minus the violence and will to power.  This is a story where the villain's ideas help the hero learn and grow, and while that's not unheard of in fiction, it is fairly unusual, especially in a so-called "comic book movie".

Monday, March 5, 2018

Ghostly soul-drinkers, debauched opium addicts, phantom Gypsies and Lily Childs.

Lily Childs challenges the tired belief that women can't scare you to death.

Lily's work is enchanting, haunting, and poetic. She easily flies from psychological, to quiet horror, and at times, shades of noir. She paints her tales with vibrant colors and violence, lacing her musings of dread with extreme and surrealistic images, pulling readers into the tawdry, bloody worlds she creates. At times the scenes are so vivid they dance close to unbearable.

"Genre-wise, I think it’s always been about the horror. I do write crime tales too; I think the genres blur quite easily." - Lily Childs

A machine of dark creativity, Lily constantly practices her art. Her non-fiction has been featured in the UK's WRITING MAGAZINE and WRITING NEWS. As publisher and editor she heads Ganglion Press; a boutique publishing house hosting the dark collection FEBRUARY FEMME FATALES, among others. She has over sixty-five published short-stories to her name. Nominated for the Spinetingler Award for 'Best Short Story on the Web' in 2011, Lily has several singles available. I highly recommend CABARET of DREAD, a collection of her best short stories. "Smiling Cyrus" will leave you breathless. She has two dark urban fantasy novellas, MAGENTA SHAMAN and MAGENTA SHAMAN STONES THE CROW and is constantly working on a novel or three.

"I did start my first novel ‘The Long Man’ in 1996. It’s set around the backdrop of The Long Man of Wilmington, an ancient chalk giant carved into the hills in Sussex, close to when I was born. Set in the modern day, the story is about childhood sweethearts Luke and Annie who go on to follow very different paths in life. Meeting up again as adults they find themselves under assault from the primal spirits of the land. Forced to act out a series of gruelling rituals, the pair come together to fight their own demons as well as battling the local Gods to save Sussex from itself." - Lily Childs on one of her first novels.

Lily has a sea of published gothic horrors, ghost stories and crime tales to her credit, most recently: The House of Three: a Short Story (Ganglion Press), The Twistweaver's Son in the Demonologia Biblica (Western Legends Publishing), The Ossillatrice Shift in Bones (James Ward Kirk Fiction), Strange Tastes in Fresh Fear (James Ward Kirk Fiction), Girl Don't Come in Thirteen (Soul Bay Press), Rapture in the Bestiarum Vocabulum (Western Legends Publishing) and Bad Exposure in Phobophobias 2 (Western Legends Publishing).

"I’m still in love with the demon from Dressing-Up Box, who likes to dress up in beautiful garments and shoes made of body parts. It’s only a tiny tale, but writing it was and still feels, darkly delicious. It’s still online on the New Flesh Magazine blog, surprisingly. However, I think Within Wet Walls might be the best taster as it covers many ideas I’m obsessed with – art, ghostly soul-drinkers, debauched opium addicts, Victoriana, phantom Gypsies and Sussex history." Lily Childs when asked which story she feels gives the truest taste of her terror.

Dressing-up Box

Awkward, I turn to pick at the flesh adorning my wardrobes, and sigh. The dance has left me ragged; exhausted from the relentless flamenco. Elegant feet I had chosen especially, bleed in stinging shreds. I have worn them to calluses. Yeast stinks between the slender toes.
A fine week’s work.
Ruining beautiful things is part of the pleasure.

Yesterday’s body was squat and dark, an aged gypsy. I slough off the old man’s skin, marvelling at the bruises incurred from seven solid days of stamping and click, click, clicking of heels. Yellowed stains litter the shins and I poke them hard, revelling in the pain before grasping the blackened feet that I pull off like old shoes; the toes broken and seeping with infection.

Today I am a ballerina, wanting the fairy tale. In a drawer there are pink-ribboned slippers, full of meat. I stole the pretty shoes from a libidinous girl I found larding on chocolate at the back of a theatre in a bulimic frenzy. Before she could plunge two fingers down her throat to vomit up the sugared treat, I declared myself. She thought me a film star, the pirate of her dreams. I let her fantasize whilst I ravaged her. My hand was already over her mouth when I revealed myself. Oh, the joy! I ate her face, tearing out sinew and muscle as I gorged. I left the playhouse staff to pick up the girl’s dregs but not before pocketing the eyeballs and stringing the shoes around my neck.

I finger my ragged stumps. The nerve-endings are raw. I twist and spasm with exquisite agony and begin the work of building myself a new pair of legs.

I want to be a woman. I want to leap across a stage with flat breasts, wearing a tutu of my own design. I force curves in at this female waist of mine and reach up, stretching tall, taller until I am long and lithe. I hear the bones creak as I bend to screw the fat girl’s feet to my ankles, flooding them with blood until they are sealed in place. You can’t see the join, however hard you search.

I am perfection.
I preen, twirling this way and that. It is a glorious creation and I am right to be proud. I run tapered fingers over pale epidermis, probing new holes. I must clothe this corpse. It will hurt. I can’t wait.
Pinches raise the first blemish. I punch and punch until colors burst to the surface. Flailing, I throw myself at walls, storm clouds surface on my torso with every beating. With painted fingernails I slice upward Vs into my chest, defining the outline of my corset tattoo.
Coiled intestines loop from a coat rack. I pull at a thin piece some ten feet long and turn to a sewing basket replete with tools of my unique trade, prising a pair of knitting needles from their resting place.

My shoulders click as they dislocate. My head turns, inch by slow inch until I am staring down at my spine. Despite the stricture I am able to force the needles in, piercing at regular intervals. I thread and weave the pale green strips of offal until the bodice is laced, and I can face the front again.

I am so beautiful.
I love the woman I have become.
Quickly I grab the swollen organs that decorate my dressing table. I claw them until they hang in shreds. With a handful of drawing pins I stud the pieces into my hips and groin. The tutu flutters, clinging to the soft pink of my thighs.

I sit before the looking-glass. This old demon’s face will not do. I dig under the scales to lift out each one, sequins of iridescence peel away leaving tiny, bleeding red roses upon the bare canvas.
Squeezing and straining I pound my skull. Thick hair bursts through my scalp. It pours down my head and frames my visage in ebony waves. I flip it into a Fonteyn knot, tied up with fine strings of gut.
Forming and stuffing it with gristle I kneed the facial tissue. I want to be sophisticated – aristocratic in countenance. I sculpt it into a near-point, massaging either side of the nose to raise the sharpest of cheekbones.
Here’s a dilemma. If I take my eye out and put it in a pickle jar whilst I mould a pair of sockets I’ll only be able to see what I’m doing at an angle. Deliberation rankles; I have no choice. I pop it out and drop it into the container, relishing the nausea it provokes as it rolls about the convex base. I have to shake the jar to truly see me at my best.
A glob of marrow plugs the gap. I force knuckles in deep making two pits that beg to be filled. My eyeball collection is in a goldfish bowl - I plunge my hand in, feeling the soft marbles slip and slide between my fingers. I want blue. It takes a moment to find a matching pair. I slot them in and adjust my vision.

So close now, so close.
I have the most carnal of mouths, ripe and red, forever tasting and kissing, sucking the life out of lovers. I make it smile, licking the rows of teeth with my black tongue. It needs no changes.
I am done.

Standing alone in the dressing room, the fabric of living costumes and masks hang around me. I drop to the ground and worship the God that made me. He grants my wish for the usual price of a dozen fresh souls – I can keep their flesh, he tells me.

The curtains rise. The audience applauds my beauty as I scour the enraptured faces for this week’s victims. Applause fades to silence, turning to screams as they realise what I am.

The doors are locked.
They can’t get out.
The dance begins.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sacramento is Having a Moment

Sacramento’s Tower Bridge. Photo: Michael Grindstaff

I live in Sacramento, a city that is usually known for triple-digit summer weather, California politics, and its location halfway between the glittering culture of the Bay Area and the recreation of the Sierra Nevada. Even if locals know there’s much more to it than that, the rest of the country probably doesn’t.
Unless they’ve seen Lady Bird. It’s a movie about a Sacramento teenager desperate to leave for a bigger, better city. And in the process, it makes clear exactly what a special place Sacramento actually is for people. Because the director got it right. From the odd-colored tile counter in the house’s one bathroom to the joke about UC Davis, every note of this movie rang true. 
It’s up for five Academy Awards tonight – Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director.
Let’s recap: I just used the words “five Academy Awards” and “Sacramento” in the same sentence. They are not words ever strung together before this movie happened. We might be in the same state as Hollywood, but that’s where the similarities have always ended.
But now, Sacramento is embracing its inner Tinsel Town. There are Lady Bird tours, which hit all the locations featured in the movie. There’s the billboard owner who put congratulations high above Highway 50 the day the Oscar nominations came out. And then there’s any place that Greta Gerwig ever touched. She’s the film’s writer and director. And a Sacramentan through and through. “This is a love letter to Sacramento,” Gerwig told the audience at the city premiere of her movie. People who know her go skipping down the street with pride. Her alma mater, St. Francis High School, has a movie poster near the entrance and is having a big, dress-up Oscar party.
I didn’t grow up here, but it’s so neat to see the civic pride for someone who did – for the local kid who not only made it big, but did so with a story about a city nobody ever really pays attention to.
And that’s not all. There’s another movie in theaters nationwide about Sacramento. (That’s a 200 percent increase compared with, well, any other time ever.) The 15:17 to Paris is about three childhood friends traveling through Europe who stop a terrorist attack on their way to the French capital. The Train Heroes, remember?
Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone are all Sacramento boys. They tackled an armed terrorist aboard a high-speed train in 2015. They received the French Legion of Honor as well as medals from the Pentagon and a lot of well-deserved praise for selflessly throwing themselves in harm’s way. That’s more impressive than what comes next, but we’re talking pop culture here, so this is also noteworthy. Now they’re playing themselves in the movie. What heroes have ever gotten to do that? Wow, as the nice folks in Sacramento would say.
So if you go to the movies this weekend, think about seeing one with Sacramento ties. And if you watch the Oscars, root for Lady Bird. Everybody in SacTown is.