Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Scott D. Parker

I received a surprising amount of traction from last week's review of 13 Horrors of Halloween so here's another staple of this season.

Halloween is a day to remember what we have forgotten. What have we let slip from our collective human consciousness? Fear. Being scared of things we can’t explain, things that go bump in the night. Isn’t that why we dress up as scary monsters, to help laugh at the things that used to scare the dickens out of us even if we don’t know why? I think so, and the same is true for the heroes of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

Eight boys dress up for Halloween in various costumes: an ape-man, a mummy, a druid with a scythe, a ghost, a witch, a beggar, a gargoyle, and a skeleton. They are beside themselves with excitement. It’s Halloween! The best day of the year, including Christmas. But their cadre is not complete. They need Pipkin, the ninth boy of their group. “Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived.” As the eight gather on Pipkin’s doorstep, awaiting their friend to bolt out of the house and lead them, Pipkin meekly walks out. Without a costume. He tells them he’s okay but that he’ll meet them at the house on the outskirts of town. Bewildered, they go.

Once there, they see it: the Halloween Tree. “There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes.” Suddenly, some thing shows up: Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, a tall, skeletal man. He asks them why they are wearing those particular costumes and then chastises them for not even knowing what those costumes represent. The boys implore Moundshroud to tell them about the history of Halloween. At that instant, however, from a distance, the soft voice of Pipkin wafts to their ears. He’s trapped. He needs saving. They run to him but Pipkin disappears into the darkness and only the mysterious Moundshroud can help. With swirling fantastic magic, he whisks the boys away on a giant kite. They need to hunt for Pipkin in the history of Halloween. First stop: Egypt.

The bulk of the book is given to the eight boys’ flight through time and space, learning the history and folklore of the celebration we now call Halloween. It’s a phantasmagorical history lesson, really. At each stop—Egypt, pre-history, Greece, Rome, England, Europe, Mexico, etc.—the boys experience the traditions of the various regions and how each place celebrated—dreaded?—the coming winter darkness. And at each stop, Pipkin is there. But he’s not. He’s enshrouded as a mummy in Egypt, he’s a gargoyle atop Notre Dame in France, or trapped in catacombs in Mexico. He’s always just out of reach, always requiring another jump through time.

The manner in which the boys travel from one place and time to another is fascinating. Hanging onto each other’s heels, they act as the tail of a giant kite created from old circus flyers. The catch: all the animals on these flyers are alive and growl and roar. At one time, they are whisked away by leaves. Leaving Mexico, they are commanded to break a piñata and little figures fall from the piñata, each corresponding to one of their own costumes. Thus freed, the little figures lift each boy up and fly him back to Illinois.

If there’s one thing that stands out in The Halloween Tree, it’s Bradbury prose. It’s had a singsong quality to it, a brazen joyfulness in just being alive. It’s like the prose itself were a twelve-year-old boy dressed up on Halloween and running through the town. It picks you up and sweeps you back to a time and place you may never have known but, somehow, know. It’s a part of the human DNA. Take these wonderful Dickensian opening lines:
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…Boys.
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind.
And the town full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
The day dying, the sunlight being “murdered” as Moundshroud puts it, is an important theme in this book. Halloween, throughout history, is the celebration of the ending of the season of light. The passing of October 31 equates to past generations of humans, far and wide, the beginning of the long, dark winter. As Moundshroud asks the boys, once the sun sets, what assurance do we have that it’ll rise again the next day? What if it never does? It was a real fear for our ancestors, something the boys and our modern culture have forgotten.

I touched upon a similar theme in my music review of the CD “Chiller” when I wrote about the demonic tone poems of 19th-Century music. Not too long ago, the darkness in our world was quite a bit closer than it is now, at least in the modern western world. We have science to tell us the true nature of things. We can rely on it to cast away the superstitions and fears our ancestors had. Our children say “trick or treat” but don’t really know why.

Halloween, however, is the celebration, the remembrance, of our past. It’s a cumulative organism now, an amalgamation of traditions and beliefs passed down. It’s a celebration of death as marked by the living. Toward the end of the book, Moundshroud forces the boys to make a choice to save Pipkin or not. The price they have to pay is a year of life, taken at the end of each of their respective lives. He warns them that here, when they are twelve, life seems so long. Later, however, when they’re going to want one more year, it won’t be theirs. Here, Bradbury, through Moundshroud, gives these modern boys a taste of the past, a past they know nothing about but, by learning about history and what makes life special, they make their choice.

At the end, one boy, Tom, the default leader of the eight, asks a question of Moundshroud: “…will we ever stop being afraid of nights and death?” Moundshroud has an answer. You may have another. But, on Halloween, for one day a year, we get to revel in the fear that our ancestors lived with daily. We get to remember. And, on November 1st, we get to put it all away and forget about it all over again.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Gunshot Research

Sometimes I don’t know how to word something or how to describe what I’m imagining so I do the reading and watch the videos. Sometimes I find something bonkers like this and decide to share it with you.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

One Sad Farewell and One WTF

By David Nemeth

There was sad news in the publishing world – heartbreaking news for many – that Midnight Ink will only be publishing "in-process" titles through the Summer of 2019. As Terri Bishoff wrote in Facebook, "As some of you may have heard, Midnight Ink will be shutting its doors after the Spring/Summer 2019 season." J. Kingston Pierce has her complete post at The Rap Sheet.

As of now, all we have is speculation about whey Midnight Ink is closing. Bishoff also wrote, "I’m still in a little bit of shock. I didn’t know this was coming. I’m sure there will be much activity and a lot of questions in the near future. I will answer as best I can." I hope that Midnight Ink's parent, Llewellyn Worldwide, will be forthcoming with the whys and hows of their decision. Not so that we can satisfy some odd thirst, but rather so that the community can learn from the mistakes, if any, of Midnight Ink's tenure.

. . .

Meanwhile, across the pond and a few days ago, another small press began its descent down a path of ruin with one simple tweet.

As you can imagine the book blogger community responded immediately. But you can read the responses as easily as I can post them here. You can also read Caffeine Nights' spineless backtracking in the thread.

Let's chat a bit about this tweet. And before I get into it, let me say that I review books on a blog called Unlawful Acts which I guess makes me a book blogger and I have also participated in a few blog tours.

What struck me was the first line, "Stepped away from social media for a few months." I'm sure Ashley Lister, author of "Doll House" that was published by Caffeine Nights in August 2018, was thrilled by that statement.

The next two lines: "Have to say, I haven't missed it. Closed our FB account haven't missed FB at all." Social media does have its problems, Facebook definitely does. But a small press, social media offers you to reach out and inform one's base of news and releases. From my experience, social media drives 50% of traffic to my site. Depending on the whims of social media, sometimes Facebook could generate 25% to 75% of social media traffic. It's a crapshoot, but it does get my site out there. So when a small press publisher doesn't "miss" social media, is that a small press one would want to publish your book? (They might have the Amazon algorithms down to a science. Who knows?)

Let's get into the meat of the tweet, "Quick word about blog tours . . . save your money for something that works." Had the man behind the Twitter account communicated efficiently, he could have written something like, "We recommend not using blog tours as we have found that they don't help our author's sales." Then their problems would have been less.

Lastly the kicker, "Most bloggers have no reach or influence. They just think they do. 😂"

No way around this, this was mean-spirited and the LOL emoji, a final kick in the teeth.

Book bloggers are part of the ecosystem of the small press world. Our influence may be small, but I know from personal experience authors and publishers dig what we do. Well, except for Caffeine Nights. I enjoy reading and reviewing books, but most of all, I love pimping the shit out of books I love. That's what Caffeine Nights and its authors will be missing in the future, not only from me but, my guess, from a majority of book bloggers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dominoes and Houses of Cards Want To Fall

The supply chain from publisher to consumer is broken. Major distributors absorbed supply chain entities (Ingram/PGW, Bookmasters/Baker & Taylor) to survive large-capacity book printing's exodus to China (and eventually their South American subsidiaries,) following fashion apparel's lead. Publishing doesn't lead trends in manufacturing and distribution but reacts to them with financial solutions involving expensive mergers and acquisitions and downline channel partners who can't allow a dollar to escape their eco-system. Then the POD books arrive printed upside-down and reversed, but no one can do anything about it, because no supply chain can yield quality greater than its industry leader, similar to how the entire global auto industry takes a hit when Ford and Chrysler do.

The supply chain from author to consumer is a solid, unbroken mechanism involving writers who want to write, readers who want to read, and a business concern that offers fair exchange between producers of goods and consumers that is indifferent to race, gender, social or political economics, or much bias beyond genre preference.

Something is broken. I'm working to figure out what it is. If you care about your writing, you have to care about books. Not the book business. Publishers and agents and salesforce managers and booksellers have to do that. Authors have to care about books, same as I'm pretty sure our favorite musicians cared about vinyl and the listening experience.

Agents don't care about your book as much as they should because they're no longer involved in the compensation end of the supply chain. Essentially, they only enjoy a cut of the advance, and if no one is paying advances, no one really cares. They can't care. No one whose bottom line is disconnected from the supply chain that brings your goods to the marketplace is going to be able to care. That's a chase position, and in an industry that is falling like lined-up dominoes, that chase is killing us.

Demand to know the financial health and commitment your publishers are making to your books. Factor into your contract term the financial reporting on the publisher. Ask to see an annual report. Look at a Dun & Bradstreet report. Don't even ruin your reputation by asking. Just go to the public library and ask for all that. Major municipalities have librarians who work to make financial texts and resources available to citizens. Use them. Measure thrice, cut once, or your family's intellectual property—and in the age of augmented intelligence and AI/robotics, intellectual property will eventually be the new real estate bubble—you have to keep your copyrights stable, which means active. Not back listed. Not out of print from time to time.

Was I a Wall Street-type, I'd be shorting publishing stocks and betting paper and printing commodities that supply to self-publishing entities, but I love the publishing industry. I just don't love that, while we're all losing money and opportunity, and losing ground globally, the folks who stand in judgment of our work don't think about this stuff. A lack of diversity in crime-mystery-thriller certainly hasn't helped, but if anyone is going to make any money off crime books, the revolution must be economic, and that first starts with thinking for self and then doing for self. Perhaps harshly, and to the confusion of folks who don't always share the same business concerns as you, the author.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Best Movie Bad Guy This Year

The last couple of days, with different friends, I have found myself discussing the movie Sorry to Bother You.  Now, number one, if you haven't seen this yet, you should, because Boots Riley's film is a rare thing - a satire that works.  It's biting, surreal, and funny as hell.  It's totally up to date in its concerns.  It is also true that the less you know about its story going in, the better, so I'll say nothing about its plot.

What I want to bring up, as I did when chatting about it with friends, is that aside from all its other good qualities, it has the best bad guy performance I've seen this year. I'm talking about Armie Hammer's performance as a very rich, drug-snorting CEO of a company called WorryFree. 

As Steve Lift, Hammer plays a privileged and jaded tech bro essentially, but he doesn't play him as an obvious jerk.  Despite the extremity of what his character winds up proposing in the movie, he doesn't lay on an evil veneer.
I mean, what Steve Lift tries to do in the movie is insidious - though not all that more insidious than what actual CEOs try to do in their quests for wealth and economic dominance - but he doesn't think what he's doing is bad and he actually has a cracked kind of visionary streak to him.  He's megalomaniacal but he's not formal or stuffy or repressed.  He'll party with you and share his intoxicating goodies. He knows his business well, takes his work seriously, and he's intelligent. He's personable and doesn't lack a sense of humor.  As you watch, at brief moments, you could almost like him, and there's something especially chilling about seeing a "villain" played, even in an outrageous satire, as someone not cartoony.  You sit there thinking, "This is precisely the kind of person we'll most need to watch out for in the future".  As writer and director Riley himself said, he cast Armie Hammer in the role because Hammer is a "lovable dude".  He represents what Riley calls "the new capitalism" where the realities of people's working conditions are disguised or hidden. In the words of Hammer's character, "I'm not your boss, I'm your friend."  

Friend indeed. Underneath his smiles and promises of wealth, underneath his tech boy quirkiness that talks of making the world better, lay his plans for exploitation.  And the thing is, these plans, the way things are going in the flesh and blood world, may not be that farfetched after all. 

More than any nasty character in a film I've seen this year, including crime and horror films, Hammer's Steve Lift is the "villain" I've remembered. He's an exaggeration of a type yet real.

By the way, if you didn't catch the movie when it was in theaters, it's now available for streaming at home.  

Monday, October 15, 2018

My Monday Virtual Exhibit

Creative people often have more than one outlet for their muse and writers, in particular, have many visions filling their beautiful brains. Imagine their thoughts as our world spins in such a volatile and calamitous manner. Today, I want to share the work of several of my favorite writers and friends. These works have put a smile on my face or a thought in my head. They mean quite a bit. Enjoy.


Sarah Gowran
Beauty in Fear

"This one feels like a strong woman letting the light and shadow from Venetian blinds highlight her features." - Sarah

"Cicada is so important to me. I like this shot because you can see that they look like stained glass. If trees are a cathedral these guys add art." - Sarah

"...Malvina. I like how she seems to be warming her face by the 40 watt sun. Every Friday the 13th I know she will show up." - Sarah

Sarah Gowran lives in Chicago with her husband. She likes watching squirrels and if you call her quirky, she gets stabby.


A Day Like This
Susie Henry

On a day like this, there is no
poetry to soothe the soul. No
music to hush the beasts.
On a day like this there is only
passion - violent and alluring -
and rage. Injustice and dark
freedom, sex and delirium.
But on a day like this, there
is power. There is us.

On a day like this, there is no
beauty in the fields. No rain to
cleanse the dirt of their sin.
On a day like this, there is only
oppression - filthy and vile -
and greed. Bloody gold and
changing borders, war and famine.
But on a day like this, there
is power. There is us.

Our voices rise up
our fists rain down.
On a day like this,
there is us.

Susan E. Henry was born in a small town in Kentucky. Susan’s first professionally published piece appeared in How to Jump from a Ferris Wheel and Land on your Feet, Volume V. The short non-fictional piece describes Susan’s triumph over depression, and was written in the hope that others who battle the illness will seek help.  Now living in Florida, she is inspired daily by the natural beauty of her tropical surroundings, as well as the friends and family who enrich her life.

Gabino Iglesias
October Man

"Only those who learn to be happy with a soul full of pain will thrive." - Gabino
 "If you think this is a scary time to be a man, imagine how all your skeletons feel, alone and trembling in your dark closet, fearing the day they're dragged, kicking, screaming, and rattling, into the unforgiving light." - Gabino

"Support others and celebrate their successes. Help people. Build community. Fight for what's right. That will lead to happiness and friendships." - Gabino Gabino Iglesias is a writer, editor, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Zero Saints (Broken River Books), Hungry Darkness (Severed Press), and Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press). He is the book reviews editor at PANK Magazine, the TV/film editor at Entropy Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. His nonfiction has appeared in places like The New York Times, Z Magazine. His latest, COYOTE SONGS, will be available at the end of this month.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Bookish Festival

By Claire Booth
I spent yesterday at the Great Valley Bookfest. It was fabulous. It kicked off with a marching band winding through the whole festival, which was a lot more entertaining than the coffee cart line these kinds of events typically feature. I also was able to realize  my childhood dream of meeting McGruff the Crime Dog. (If witnesses say I chased after him, I'll deny it.)
Appropriate for this close to Halloween, there were several comic book characters in costume who walked around and interacted with the kids. And speaking of kids--there were tons of them. Many of them walking around with books clutched in their hands. Hallelujah! It bodes well for the future--of books and of America. 
There was a pretty steady crowd for most of the day. My favorite parts of these events are the people I meet. This time, I got to talk to several aspiring writers, lots of mystery fans, and even a woman who just returned from visiting family in Branson (where my books are set). Books do make the world smaller, don't they?