Saturday, December 9, 2023

So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters


Scott D. Parker

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.

When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own. But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooge”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Want a New Short Story Everyday for the Christmas Season?

Scott D. Parker

We are in December now and the 2023 holiday season has begun. I’ve already been listening to my Christmas albums—always start with Chicago’s three Christmas albums—but made a fun discovery this year: Richard Marx’s “Christmas Spirit.” Boy, is that a fun song, and you simply have to watch the video.

I’ve also started my season’s readings and, for the past past five years, my annual Christmas reading is anchored by an Advent calendar of short stories.

The WMG Holiday Spectacular is the brainchild of veteran author Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She wondered what it would be like to have a new short story each day from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Now, in its fifth year, the WMG Holiday Spectacular is one of the things I look forward every year.

Rusch curates all the stories and is mindful of where in the season certain stories land. There are hard-boiled stories but not during the last days leading up to Christmas. There are other holidays in the season like St. Nicholas’s Day so if one of the authors submitted a story that goes with that day, that’s what you’ll get.

Everyday, you get an email with Rusch’s introduction to that day’s story including genre and mood and link’s to the author’s website. You can read the stories on any device you prefer. I prefer my Kindle Paperwhite but the browser experience is perfectly good. It’s especially good during lunch hours when my Paperwhite is at home and I can’t wait to read a story.

There have been some gems so far. “The Great Tamale Sauce Bakeoff” by Kat Simons mixes romance and cooking while C.H. Hung delivers a great hard-boiled story in “The Dead Ringer.” There are some nice, positive messages from Irette Y. Patterson’s “Tremelo” as well as Rusch’s own “Hidden Treasures.”

If you subscribe today, you’ll get all the stories up to now and then you’ll be in for a treat. If you need the math, it’s $25 for 40 short stories. It’s a no brainer and it’ll help enliven your season all the way to that New Year’s Day hangover.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Artistic Value, for Better or Worse

I've almost finished reading Perceval Everett's novel Erasure. I like it a lot and maybe I'll write more about it later, but I thought I'd just place here a passage from it I found funny and also quite insightful about the relationship between artistic value and commercial success or the lack of what's considered commercial success. It's a brief imagined conversation between the painter Mark Rothko and the filmmaker Alain Resnais. In Erasure itself, the exchange has nothing to do with the plot, and as a matter of fact, neither Rothko nor Resnais figure anywhere else in the book. Still, it does connect thematically to what's around it in the novel.

It goes like this:

Rothko: I'm sick of painting these damn rectangles.

Resnais: Don't you see that you're tracing the painting's physical limits? Your kind of seeming impoverishment becomes a sort of adventure in the art of elimination. The background and the foreground are your details and they render each other neutral. The one negates the other and so oddly we are left with only details, which in fact are not there.

Rothko: But what's the bottom line?

Resnais: The idiots are buying it.

Rothko: That is it, isn't it?

Resnais: I'm afraid so. They won't watch my films and believe me, my art is no better for the neglect.

Rothko: And no worse, Alain.

And as I read this passage, chuckling, I thought, "Yes, on every level, true."

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Give the Gift of Reading to Kids Battling Cancer via Evie's Holiday Book Drive


Scott D. Parker

As we conclude Thanksgiving 2023 with thoughts of all the things are are thankful for, I would like to remind you of the 6th Annual Evie's Holiday Book Drive. This foundation was created after one of our own, Duane Swierczynski, lost his daughter to cancer back in 2018. 

Read Evie's story and learn more at their website.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cocaine Hippos

Idea for a story: A drug kingpin, let's say in South America, gets the yearning to import exotic animals onto his vast estate. He does this purely to satisfy his own particular whims, not unlike what William Randolph Hearst did when he imported animals foreign to the United States to California to create a large private zoo at Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Hearst had animals there such as African and Asian antelopes, camels, giraffes, kangaroos, leopards, chimpanzees, and tigers. He also had zebras, and for many years, apparently, Hearst's guests in San Simeon would stroll through the zoo and gawk at the zebras and all the other animals. Hearst's financial difficulties led to the zoo being dismantled in 1937, and most of the animals were sold to other people or donated to public zoos. The zebras remained on the Hearst land, however, and to this day they are there, wandering over the 80,000 acres of grassland below the castle. I spotted them in the distance myself while driving down the coast on US Highway 1 a few years ago, an odd site in that landscape even though I had read about them and was hoping, if not expecting, to see them.

Well, for this story idea, the drug kingpin brings over to his South American country four hippopotamuses from Africa, and they enjoy life on his estate. But when he dies some years after importing them, nobody knows what to do about them. For one thing, they are too large to just gather up and bring somewhere else, like to a zoo. No one provides the means to transfer them anywhere else, and to their credit, people consider it inhumane to kill them. So they live on, adapting, and a few decades later the original population of four has expanded to about 170. They have expanded as well in the territory they cover, finding wild rivers, feeding, living normal hippo lives. The country realizes that the hippos have become a dangerously invasive species in the area, with no predators of any kind to deal with and whose feeding habits and overall lifestyle are causing real problems for native animals and for the local habitat in general. The dead drug kingpin's whim has fomented something of an environmental crisis in the country. Nobody could have foreseen this, how the hippos, in effect, are part of the chain of collateral damage stemming from his long defunct drug business. And because the main drug he dealt in was cocaine, the hippos have become known as the cocaine hippos. They are the cocaine hippos of that country, and the fear is that if they are left untended, their population can reach thousands in the decades to come, a potential disaster.

Sounds a little absurd, but it's all true. Somehow I had no idea any of this was going on until I came across it in the news the other day. The country with the problem is Columbia and the drug kingpin who brought the hippos over from Africa years ago to live on his estate was Pablo Escobar. Of all the kinds of stories you could come across even tangentially related to crime and criminal activity, this is not one you'd anticipate. Probably the officials in Columbia didn't either, and they have in fact rejected the idea of just killing all the invasive hippos. Instead, they have begun a program to sterilize many of the hippos to prevent a population boom, but as anyone can imagine, sterilizing a hippo is no easy task. First, you have to shoot enough darts into a hippo's thick skin to knock it out, then you have get the hippo in the right position for the procedure, then do the procedure. The whole thing takes a team of people who know exactly what they're doing, and they have to do it quickly, before the hippo wakes up.

A somewhat bizarre story, and you probably could do something with this as fiction in these times of concern about the environment. Who knows? I just hope the Columbian hippo sterilization project goes well.

There's a good bit about this online, but here's a link to one story on it that I came across.. It goes into detail about what's going on right now with the hippos: 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Not All Turkeys Are On The Table in Turkey Trot Murder by Leslie Meier

Scott D. Parker

If it seem like I just reviewed a Leslie Meier book last month, then you are absolutely correct. But the number of Thanksgiving-themed mysteries are rather small, so I read one of Meier’s two helpings.

Time Jumps and an Aging Protagonist

A more logical reader might read each book in a long-running series in order, but Turkey Trot Murder (2017) was the only audiobook available at the library. It is Meier’s 24th (out of 30 by next year). As a result, I had a bit of whiplash when I landed back in Tinker’s Cove, Maine, and our heroine, Lucy Stone.

She’s now a full-time report for the local weekly, but she and her husband, Bill, are now empty nesters. When I last left them in 1996’s Trick or Treat Murder, all the kids were, well, kids living at home. Lucy had to juggle all her various duties—mom, wife, reporter, friend—while still trying to solve that Halloween mystery.

Here, however, it’s just her and Bill, and she’s the catalyst for the entire story. It was Lucy, out running and training for the annual Turkey Trot race, who stumbled on the body of a young woman, face down in an icy pond.

I know that allowing characters to age in real time is nothing new, but I’ve actually read few long-running series so I found it rather refreshing. The youngest child is eighteen and in college while the oldest has already made grandparents out of Lucy and Bill.

Current American Trends Slip Into a Cozy Mystery

In the less-than-a-dozen cozy mysteries I’ve read to date, there is a common factor: despite the technology, many of these stories take place in a time you really can’t nail down (unless you read the copyright page and know what year it was published). Still, so many of these stories are timeless, in that they could land in almost any year of the last thirty or so years.

But Turkey Trot Murder lets in some things that were actually going on before 2017 and to this day. One of the characters is an American-born restaurateur whose heritage is from Spain. He appears Hispanic and nothing he says dissuades a certain subset of the population.

That subset are exemplified by a desire to make sure this restaurateur does not open his restaurant in Tinker’s Cove. “America for Americans” is the slogan these people chant over and over again, and it’s enough to make you cringe. It made Lucy and many of the the other characters cringe as well, and I appreciated the counter-arguments made to oppose this slogan. It was here the First Thanksgiving was referenced more than once, but it fell on deaf ears.

It’s Like General Fiction With Crimes Thrown In

Like I mentioned last month, Meier’s books are almost general fiction in that we spend a lot of time just in the everyday lives of Lucy and the other residents of Tinker’s Cove. It’s charming, to be honest, and it really makes you want to visit or, perhaps, look at your own town and see something similar.

There are crimes to be solved and Lucy, with her press badge, easily puts herself in the middle of everything. And, just like a good protagonist, she starts the story with the discovery and she ends it as well. Quite satisfactorily, I might add.

The mysteries of Lucy Stone by Leslie Meier have rapidly become comfort reading. I love visiting Tinker’s Cove, and I encourage you to plan a trip there. There are nearly 30 different novels, most surrounding a holiday. Pick one and dive in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A Tricky Business

Pastiche in fiction is a tricky business. I tend to find myself leery of a story or novel that makes it clear that it is imitating a certain writer or style or form, because why would I want to read the imitator when I can go to the earlier works? There have been so many Sherlock Holmes stories written over time since Arthur Conan Doyle died, and yet as much as I love Holmes stories, I've read very few of the pastiches because nobody can match Doyle. On the other hand, there are always exceptions, and as much as any pastiche of any kind I've ever read, I love Nicholas Meyer's The-Seven-Percent-Solution. It has a brilliant conceit, for one thing, and captures the voice and flavor of the Holmes stories almost perfectly. 

Of course, there is no true originality in fiction so the lines between pastiche, homage, tribute, parody, and plain literary influence are amorphous. To use the Conan Doyle example again: something like Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is something I would not call a pastiche per se, since it takes the Holmes character and uses him in a way that is Chabon's own, not in strict imitation of Conan Doyle. Anyway, don't all writers draw upon their influences when creating their own work? Yes, obviously, they do, though some more overtly than others. So what's a pastiche and what the mere product of a writer's influences, developed by the new writer in his or her specific way, can not only be hard to determine but also a moot point. In the end, who cares really what the work is if it's engaging and you enjoy it?

These were some of my thoughts when I read Tom Mead's Death and the Conjuror recently. I'd gone into a bookstore I sometimes frequent and said to the staff I was looking for a particular novel. I mentioned that I've been reading a lot of locked-room and impossible crime mysteries lately. I used to read them often many years ago, I said, and have now gotten back into them again. It's the fun of the puzzle, the rigorous logic, and just the pure escapism. The staff member recommended Death and the Conjuror, and I said I'd heard good things about it. What I didn't say was that I hadn't before been all that interested in picking it up because it looks so clearly like a pastiche of John Dickson Carr and other practitioners of the Golden Age locked-room mystery, down to setting the story in 1930s England. Nothing against 1930s England, but it's such familiar mystery land territory. One reason I've been so liking reading Japanese fair-play mysteries the last couple of years is because of the (to me) fresh setting and approaches these stories take to a well-known form. But regardless, the staff member said Tom Mead's book is quite well done – "elegant" is the word he used  with not one impossible crime in it but two, and I took his word for it. Besides, the book has a handsome cover.

So the verdict? Death and the Conjuror is pastiche, tribute, hommage  call it what you will – done right. Set in London in 1936, it follows retired stage magician turned part-time sleuth Joseph Spector as he and Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Flint do  in fact solve two crimes: one, a locked room murder of a prominent psychiatrist, and two, the "impossible" robbery from a house party of a famous painting. The puzzles themselves are confounding, the suspects an interesting and theatrical lot, the atmosphere enjoyably macabre when appropriate in the story. But what I especially liked was the book's style, which is not a slavish imitation of an older style, which a writer might have used back in the 1930s, but a brisk prose that reads like a slight updating of an older style. It sounds fresh and has a contemporary pacing while at the same time avoiding anachronisms, phrases, and attitudes that sound like they would come from 2022 (when the book was published). 

Adding to the pleasure is the way Meade leans into the tradition he is writing in and signals that awareness to the reader. This is especially true in a chapter in which Joseph Spector gives a brief disquisition on the locked room problem and cites, while speaking, the original chapter that is a lecture on impossible crimes and locked room problems in John Dickson Carr's 1935 novel The Hollow Man. Later, just before the solution, Mead addresses the reader directly much as Ellery Queen did in his early books, though the author acknowledges that "these days such practices are antiquated and rather passe". Still, as he says, who is he "to stand in the way of a reader's fun?" 

Who indeed? He has not in any way hindered a reader's fun, certainly not this reader, and I'm on board to read some more of his inventive nods to a tradition of literary misdirection.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Two Keys to a Successful NaNoWriMo

Scott D. Parker

I’ll admit something: I’m a little bummed I’m not doing Nation Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, in the official way. I really enjoy the camaraderie of writers all channeling their energies into creating 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. It’s a blast and I’ve already booked November 2024 as my next official NaNoWriMo.

But this year? I’m not trying to start a new book. I’m actually trying to finish one. Thus my own spin on the name: NaNoFiMo. I’m driving to finish a book by 30 November. I didn’t start the month on fire with daily word count, but I am about to have some time off on Thanksgiving week and I think I can make up time.

That’s one of the keys to a successful NaNoWriMo:

Stay Flexible

If there’s one thing you must keep in mind as you write your story this month is to stay flexible. Writing a novel is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Each day, however, can feel like a sprint, and you treat them that way. The sprint is the 1,667 words. But here’s a huge weight you can lift off your shoulders.

Don’t get too bogged down in the daily weeds. Maintain the overall goal: 50,000. Some days, you’ll blow past the 1,667 daily benchmark. Others you may fall short. You can make it up. Don’t lose sight of the end goal: a completed story. In the end, it won’t matter if you didn’t reach your daily goal for a third of the days and exceeded it on the rest. All that matters is a 50,000-word completed novel.

You know another key to a successful NaNoWriMo?

Have Fun

In every NaNoWriMo novel I’ve written, there is a wonderful urgency to get the words down. That’s good. But you are also the first reader of the book you are writing. Entertain yourself! Have fun.

My writing times are always in the early mornings before the day job starts. I rise at 5:00 am for these writing sessions.
The family is asleep and I am by myself with my characters and story. I open the laptop and start the daily writing. And I am gone out of this world and into the world of my story.

And I’m grinning at times. My heart races at other times. Heck, I’ve even teared up writing certain scenes. The thing is, I’m wholly invested in the tale.

It is one of the best feelings out there. We’re writers, after all!

So have fun, stay flexible, and enjoy NaNoWriMo.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Now Available: Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery

Scott D. Parker

Well, this is fun.

After a long gestation period, one of my favorite books has now been published.

What’s It About?

Here’s the short elevator pitch:

During an investigation to ferret out corruption on the home front in World War II, Senator Harry Truman not only finds himself embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project, but must also confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.

Here’s the longer book description:

As a U.S. Senator, Harry Truman led a congressional committee dedicated to ferreting out corruption during World War II with a simple credo: help the country win the war and bring our soldiers home.

In the spring of 1944, Truman receives a series of ominous letters from a lawyer out in Hanford, Washington. His client, a farmer who lost his land when the government confiscated it for a secret project, has been silenced and drafted into the Army.

Truman personally leads this investigation, bringing along former policeman Carl Hancock. Soon after they start looking into things, Truman and Hancock witness a pair of brutally murdered corpses, a town clouded in secrecy, and more than one person who’d prefer to be done with the pesky senator.

But the investigators are tenacious, and in no time, Truman and Hancock not only find themselves embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project but also must confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.

Where Can You Find It?

It is currently available as a ebook in all major online stores. For those of y’all who prefer paperbacks, those will be available soon.


Read an Excerpt

April 17, 1944
4:13 p.m., Pacific War Time

McLeod led Truman and Hancock out into the parking lot after the two travelers had refreshed themselves. As McLeod was getting his keys from his pocket, Truman said, “This is your car?”

“Yes, it is,” McLeod said, a hint of pride in his voice as he admired how the sun shone off the chrome grill and the midnight blue paint. “It’s a 1941 Lincoln Continental, the last major line produced before the war started.” He ran a hand along the roof on the driver’s side. “This baby really purrs, too. Smoothest riding car I’ve ever known.”

He opened the back door behind the driver’s seat and placed both suitcases on the seat. He leaned in and unlocked both passenger doors. The other two men climbed in, Truman in the front. McLeod slid behind the steering wheel and started the engine.

He paused with both hands on the wheel and looked over at Truman. “I deeply appreciate you both coming out here. I know you don’t know me from Adam and I’m not even a constituent. But it’s reached the point where I don’t trust anyone official over in Richland.”

“Well you can trust us,” Truman said, his finger idly tracing the curve of his hat, now on his lap. “Your letters, taken as a whole, amount to something we’ve not encountered. Usually, we get the company cheating the government and hampering the war effort with cheap products. Yours was, well, unnerving.” He glanced back at Hancock. “Carl?”

“It’s certainly unusual, I’ll give you that,” Hancock said. “But I’d like to hear some more details, if you don’t mind.”

“We have the time,” McLeod said, putting the car in gear and backing out of the parking space. “We have a little drive back up to Richland.”

Hancock said, “That reminds me. Why’d you have us meet you here in Oregon? Ain’t there a train station in Richland or some other town near there?”

McLeod looked at him in the rearview mirror. “I think I’m being watched. Those two hoods convinced me of that. I wanted to get out of the spotlight and meet somewhere where no one knows who I am.”

“You give your name to anyone here?” Hancock asked.

“No.” McLeod thought. “Yes, to the ticket man. I introduced myself and asked whether or not your train would be on time. Why, was that wrong?”

“Not necessarily, no, but it might’ve been better if you hadn’t.”

McLeod frowned. “But we’re more than an hour away from Richland. Why would it matter if I gave my name down here? Besides, I live in Seattle so Richland’s not even my hometown.”

“But you’ve been in Richland for a few weeks working for your client.” Truman said, seeing where Hancock was going. “You’re probably known around town, too. You aren’t just some worker. You’re the attorney for a man suing the federal government. Word spreads in small towns when out-of-towners come in. Back in Independence, the whole town would know if so-and-so’s uncle or aunt were visiting almost as soon as they arrived.”

Hancock said, “Mr. McLeod, I’ve come late to this party. I just read your letters this morning. And I don’t know what else you and Harry’ve talked about. Why don’t you fill in some details while we’re driving?”

“I didn’t leave much out of the letters. I had to make a compelling case to get some help out here. As I wrote in the last letter, I’ve gotten to where I don’t trust anyone official out here, even Ira, the local sheriff.” McLeod shook his head. “Ira. That one’s hard to explain. He’s such a straight arrow. Nothing bad ever happened to him except for the loss of his wife back in ’37. My wife and I were at Donald’s house for Christmas and he’d invited Ira over so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas. He’d even…”

“Why were you at Mr. Bumble’s house for Christmas?” Hancock asked, his gaze never leaving the passing scenery outside his window. “I thought you were just his lawyer.”

McLeod’s face reddened at the question and Truman, half facing McLeod, leaned in closer. “Is there something you’ve left out of your letters, Mr. McLeod?”

“It’s not important, really,” McLeod said, “and it doesn’t have any bearing on my standing as Donald’s attorney.” He eased off the gas as he approached a slow-moving truck carrying crates of apples. “I didn’t think you’d come out here if I wrote it in a letter.”

“What is it, Mr. McLeod?” Truman asked, a bit more firmly.

“Donald, or Donnie, as my wife likes to call him, is my brother-in-law.”

Truman sat back and Hancock let out a little chuckle. “Let me guess. Your sister didn’t want to live on a farm for the rest of her life so she got outta there as fast as she could. ‘Cept that left Mr. Bumble as the only one to tend the farm when dear old mom and dad went to the great orchard in the sky. Then, when the government took the land, your wife got all guilty and ‘persuaded’ you to represent her brother.” The word “persuade” was said in such a way that each man, husbands all, exactly knew the meaning.

McLeod eyed the Texan sitting in his back seat. “That’s about eighty percent correct. How’d you know?”

“Because I was in a similar situation. Me and your wife played the same part and my sister and Mr. Bumble played the other part. ‘Course, in my case, it was the other war. Took me away from the farm and I never went back, despite what I told my sister. She hated me for a while, too. Spent the first Christmas after the war stuck at my podunk apartment in Austin.” Hancock turned from his window and looked at McLeod through the rearview mirror.

“What changed your sister’s mind to invite you back the next time,” McLeod said.

“Oh, she didn’t. After that, I met my future wife and she invited me to celebrate Christmas with her family.” Hancock’s voice sounded like it was far away. “Fact is, it wasn’t  until I went into law enforcement that Edna finally came around.”

McLeod had sat up straighter. “Did you say ‘law enforcement’? Are you a cop?”

Truman jumped in. “I recruited Carl straight out of the sheriff’s office in Texas.” He shifted in his seat so that he faced McLeod. “That’s beside the point, Mr. McLeod. Aside from the many details of dates, times, witnesses, et cetera, is there anything else you need to tell us before we proceed?”

McLeod shook his head then stopped. “Well, as Donald was feeling the heat, I took steps to get him to dictate and sign an affidavit. We actually drove all the way to Walla Walla to see one of my law school buddies we could trust. He’s a county judge out there. We got the affidavit four days before Donald was drafted.”

Truman noticed that Hancock was nodding. “Okay, that’s good,” he said. “Anything else? Anything at all?”

McLeod, finally realizing the fruit truck was not going to turn anytime soon, downshifted the Lincoln and sped past the truck. “No,” said McLeod, settling back into his casual driving position, the open highway before him.

“Tell us about the warehouse where Mr. Bumble worked.”

“Moore Shipping and Warehousing? They have branches all over the Columbia River, from Spokane to the Pacific, as well as Portland and Seattle. I didn’t know anything about them but my firm represented them once, before I was on board. The owner is Edward P. Moore, avid hunter and outdoorsman. Real Hemingway type, if you know what I mean.”

The conversation went on in this manner with Truman and Hancock asking questions about Richland, other people McLeod represented, and other theories the attorney had. Hancock, his eyes rarely leaving the view outside his window, caught the first glimpse of a river he assumed was the Columbia. He also was the first one to see the police lights.

McLeod slowed the car and stopped at the junction of two roads. Both he and Truman saw the police cars, now clearly visible about fifty yards away to their right.

“That the direction we’re going? Hancock asked.


“Good. Let’s stop and say hello.”


There’s more to this excerpt but I didn’t want to make today’s post too long.

Click here to read the rest of the excerpt at the main page on my website.

Click here for a list of the stores where Treason at Hanford is now available.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Weekend Recipe: Braised Unicorn

By Sam Belacqua

I'm a big unicorn fan, but can never find a good recipe that's also healthy and involves wine. Until today. Enjoy

Braised Unicorn

 **Unicorn Braised in Red Wine Sauce**



- 2 lbs unicorn shoulder or unicorn butt, cut into chunks

- 2 tablespoons olive oil

- 1 onion, chopped

- 2 cloves garlic, minced

- 2 carrots, sliced

- 2 celery stalks, sliced

- 1 cup red wine (choose a wine you'd enjoy)

- 2 cups beef or vegetable broth

- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

- 2 bay leaves

- Salt and pepper to taste



 1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

2. Add the unicorn pieces and sear them until they're browned on all sides. This step is crucial for building flavor.

3. Remove the seared unicorn from the pot and set it aside.

4. In the same pot, add the chopped onion, minced garlic, sliced carrots, and celery. Sauté them until the vegetables start to soften and the onions become translucent.

5. Return the seared unicorn to the pot.

6. Pour in the red wine and let it simmer for a few minutes, allowing the alcohol to cook off and the liquid to reduce slightly.

7. Add the beef or vegetable broth, fresh rosemary sprigs, bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper.

8. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low.

9. Let the unicorn braise gently for 2-3 hours, or until it becomes tender and easily falls apart.

10. Check the unicorn occasionally and add more broth if needed to keep it moist.

11. Once the unicorn is fork-tender and the flavors have melded, remove the rosemary sprigs and bay leaves.

12. Serve your unicorn braise over mashed potatoes, polenta, or a bed of steamed vegetables. Garnish with fresh herbs & enjoy. 

The unicorn poster can be found here

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Do book tours sell books?

 By Sam Belacqua & ChatGPT

A book tour, let me explain,

Is a writer's thrilling, winding lane.

With pages spun, tales to share,

Authors embark on a journey rare.

They pack their words, their stories bold,

In suitcases, both young and old.

To cities far and towns unknown,

Their literary seeds are sown.

From bookstore nooks to libraries grand,

They seek readers throughout the land.

With pen in hand, and smiles so bright,

They bring their worlds to life's delight.

In readings, signings, and Q&A,

They make new friends along the way.

Book tours are a writer's chance,

To connect with readers in a dance.

So, if you seek adventure true,

Join an author's journey, it's for you!

A book tour's magic, you'll soon see,

A bridge between the author and thee.

Book tours, at times, can be a double-edged sword for authors. Despite their initial allure, the reality often reveals the flaccid nature of these endeavors. First, the financial aspect can strain the author's resources, making the endeavor flaccid in terms of return on investment. Second, the repetitive travel schedule can lead to uninspired, flaccid writing as the author's creative energy wanes. Lastly, the expectation of packed venues and enthusiastic crowds can sometimes result in a flaccid turnout, leaving authors disheartened. While book tours can be a valuable promotional tool, they are not without their potential drawbacks.

Book tours and distress,

Unplanned journeys, both a mess,

Life's quirks, I confess.

Book tours can sometimes feel like the misguided idea that standing in the rain will make you a better swimmer. The absurdity lies in their outdated and ineffective nature, leaving authors to question if they're truly worth the effort and soggy shoes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Argento Talks About Himself

It came out in English about four years ago, but I just recently caught up with Dario Argento's autobiography, Fear. As a long-time Argento devotee, there was no way I was not going to read this. Besides, much as I love so many of his films and much as I've read about him and his films over the years, he's one filmmaker who has always been a little enigmatic to me since he's never really let the public "inside", so to speak. By inside, I mean on an ordinary what's Dario-like level. He's put his utterly distinct visions on screens for years, working (when at his best) from his subconscious, exploring his deepest obsessions, but he's one creative person who I genuinely have wanted to know more about on what you might call a mundane level. I was confident that no amount of self-explanation from Dario, as it does with some, would diminish the power and the essential mysteriousness of his greatest films.

Fear met my expectations. He tells his story in a straightforward chronological manner, with the skill of an excellent raconteur. We get childhood anecdotes and his account of how he went from journalism and writing film reviews to writing film scripts and treatments, a period which culminated, of course, with the screen story he wrote along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone for Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. We learn about how he made his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with his producer father's help, and how the production company funding it, seeing his early dreamlike footage, not typical of the giallo film they were expecting, told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't have a clue about what he was doing. Dario persisted, with his father acting to some extent as his shield, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage went on to be a huge hit both in Italy and internationally. Argento's career path was set.

Argento tells anecdotes about nearly all his film and TV work through 2013 (the book was first published in Italy in 2014), and he also talks about his mother (who he was close to) and his various romantic relationships. There is much about his years with Daria Nicolodi and the very productive period they spent working together. And we get a good bit about Dario as a father, a father to only daughters, both Fiore (whose mother, Marisa Casale, was married to Dario for four years) and Asia (Daria's daughter). It is amusing, and even touching, to think of Dario in this mode:

"My youngest daughter [Asia] came to live with me permanently, so now in my house I had two women who controlled my every movement like an orchestra conductor. They told me off if I was too far away from them or if I worked at weekends and they were free from schoolwork and wanted me to take them on trips. I tried to shoulder all my burdens, meetings with their teachers, appointments with dentists and gynaecologists, and the inevitable heartaches caused by first loves..." 

That Dario is a cinephile is no surprise; he references numerous directors he has admired and studied and known over the years: Federico Fellini, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero, John Carpenter, Ingmar Bergman, Ricardo Freda, and "that genius" Mario Bava. What I didn't have any idea about is how much Dario has loved swimming since childhood and how he and his brother and sister grew up with a ping pong table in their house and that ping pong is a game he enjoyed playing well into adulthood. Fear is filled with personal tidbits like these, as any interesting memoir should be, and it's part of what makes the book such a pleasure to read. If you like Argento and haven't read it, I can't see why you wouldn't pick this up. It comes as well with a lot of great color photos from throughout Argento's career, from on his film sets and off. A very nicely put-together book overall.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Nothing Scary About How Fun Murder at the Pumpkin Pageant Is

Scott D. Parker

The hallmark of a good cozy mystery series is whether or not you’d want to live in the town with the characters that populate the book…despite all the murders. When it comes to Beacon Harbor, Michigan, this Houstonian gives a resounding yes.

The residents of Beacon Harbor are seen through the eyes of Lindsey Bakewell (yeah, that’s her name), a woman who moved back to her hometown, took up residence in a haunted lighthouse, and opened a bakeshop in that same building. I first read about these folks a couple of years ago in Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop, the first of the series. Pumpkin Pageant is the fourth book and, having enjoyed a seasonal Halloween-based mystery from Leslie Meier, I wanted to find another cozy centered on Halloween.

This novel opens the day before Halloween as the town prepares for the annual Pumpkin Pageant where dogs and their humans compete in a costume contest. Lindsey herself dreads the approaching spooky holiday. You see, some teenagers have been hanging scary decorations at the lighthouse. The goal is twofold: bring a sense of dread to the decidedly lighthearted decorations Lindsey puts up and hope to catch a glimpse of the ghost.

In an effort to out the perpetrators, Lindsey sponsors a pumpkin carving event and invites all the high schoolers. Lindsey befriends the teacher as well, and marvels how the educator can see the good in the kids.

Meanwhile, Lindsey’s bestie, Kennedy Kapoor, an online influencer, has invited the crew from a cable TV ghost hunter show to conduct an investigation of the lighthouse…on Halloween night. And it’s going to be live streamed. Lindsey isn’t too excited, but allows it. The broadcast goes by without much drama until something happens inside the lighthouse that sends Kennedy running outside. She’s scared of something inside, but what she finds outside is worse. A corpse hanging from one of the trees outside the lighthouse.

I’m not a cozy expert (but I’m getting there). I only started reading them in 2021 when I joined Murder by the Book’s Cozy Mystery subscription service, but the books I’ve read by Darci Hannah are the literary equivalent to the delightful baked goods Lindsey prepares in her bakeshop. As before, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Amy Melissa Bentley who does a wonderful with the different characters, especially Kennedy and her British accent. In fact, Kennedy is very much a co-star is this book. Her relationship with Lindsey is the kind you hope you have in your life, and her pseudo rivalry with Rory Campbell, Lindsey’s boyfriend, is just plain fun.

Like any good mystery, the suspect list is pretty decent and the trials and tribulations and baked treats the characters go through is fun. There are some genuinely harrowing moments as we hurtle to the ending, but it just helps the character development.

Reading Murder at the Pumpkin Pageant helps to remind me just how much I enjoy this small Michigan town and the people in it. And, in reviewing the other two books already published, I see that there is a Christmas installment. And Christmas Reading Season begins in just a few days.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

FICTION: "POST-MORTEM (KILLBOX, REDUX)" by #1 Bestselling Author, Beau Johnson

There's one name you've all heard across the internet this week. You've heard it here, and you've heard it on Twitter (I'll never call it X, you nerds, stop it). You've heard it on Facebook and you've heard it on almost every crime fiction or horror fiction blog between here and wherever servers go when they finally lay down and die. If you have an especially cool family, you may have heard this name around your dinner table. And, then, there's another place you've seen this name. You've seen it, if you've been paying attention, on the Amazon Best Seller lists. Specifically, sitting at number god damn one. 

That's right. THE ABRUM FILES, the new novel in stories by our friend and collaborator Beau Johnson, was the number one bestselling hot new release on Amazon's noir charts this weekend. 

That's a big deal. A huge deal, actually. And to celebrate this accomplishment, Beau is giving us a first peak at what comes next. A brand new story. 

But first, you need to do your part. THE ABRUM FILES is out now, and you'd better be buying a copy. Two, maybe, one for your nightstand and one for your phone. If you need any final convincing, my blurb for the book was this: 
“Dark, bloody, and full of hell, The Abrum Files is line after line of pure, uncut, chainsaw noir.”

So make sure you buy a copy. And when you're done? Enjoy this scorcher of a story from Beau. It's only available here (for now). 

Congratulations, Beau. Speaking as a friend, and speaking for a lot of your friends, we're all extraordinarily happy for you, and so proud of what you've achieved here. 

Now let's get to the killing.


I look back in time to see Rider turn from me. Cane in hand, he moves forward, and I watch as he exits through a warehouse door he’d never use again. 

Did I know then? No, not then, but in the weeks that followed the conclusion became as inescapable as the poison that ate at him from within,the cancer as aggressive and inflicting as the man himself. Perhaps more. His hair, like his scruff, gone ashen, all but stubble in the places scar tissue didn’t exist. But his weight is what stood out most, slipping from his frame faster than seemed possible. His rage remained, however, alive and untouched and sustaining him as it had since he realized what he needed to do.

I turn back to the task at hand. 

“Joe Scipione, you ever hear of a man named Bishop Rider?” 

I see movement, but the man displayed upon the screens before me is unable to summon the strength to properly engage. Fair enough, really, as the place he found himself in, it didn’t play at half measures. 

The Killbox was Rider’s last gift to the world, and here, at this point in time, was my introduction to its existence. Shorter than your average shipping container but just as wide, it stood stark white, all corrugated steel, and in time a place that would come to house bodies like a tomb. 

One way in, Rider had said. Zero ways out.

True. But only for those who found themselves on the other side of the three monitors sitting in front of me---three camera angles that were currently capturing the blood puddle Scipione wallowed in, the water spout jutting from the wall on his left the only thing prolonging the remainder of his life. Stirring, his body is thinner than Rider’s, but despite trying, he can’t remove the clumps of tangled hair from his eyes with what remained of his fingers.

“He’s the reason you’re in the there, Joe. He’s not the only reason, though. No, that part falls to you. But rest assured, the voice you’re listening to now, it’s going to be the one who takes you apart.”

Forty-eight hours later I make good on my promise, but only after Scipione, more so the man’s left thumb, gives me the unlikeliest of assists---digit number six unable to negotiate the same pathway his other five fingers had taken before. 

“It’s ready then?” 

I tell Rider it is, the Killbox cleaned out, set up, and awaiting of the festivities we hoped his death would bring. “Better get to it then.”

He never changed, not even at the end. He did what he needed to do; he remained what he’d been forced to become. 

Me, however, I knew I’d need help.


“Jeramiah Abrum. As I live and breathe.” Marcus’s smile has never changed, not in all the years I’ve known him. Bulky, he’s Batista-size, especially through the shoulders and chest. Pulling me to him using arms I’d never have, he accepts my outstretched hand the only way he ever has. Releasing me, he says: “Lemme guess? Someone needs doing?” 

Now it’s my turn to smile. “Something like that.”

“Yeah, I bet it’s something like that.” The years fall away then, and the time between what we’d accomplished together and now, it’s like it never occurred at all. And by accomplished, I’m referring to the period of time before Rider was able to accept me as someone beyond my father,opposite to everything Marcel Abrum stood for. Before Rider could accept me like himself, a man who’d gone and choose to make a life at righting particular wrongs.

“If you need me to say it, m’man, I’ll say it, but Jeramiah, I think you already know my answer.” The parking garage is empty, and his voice carries, but in the end I realize what I already should have known—-that Marcus and I were past such things. Killing dirtbags created a bond bathed not only in the blood of others, but one made stronger by the blood of monsters who pretended at being human. A bond, it seemed, that could and would now transverse years.

“I won’t lie. It’s going to be messy.”

“You talking regular messy or turning jungle life upon a couple dozen pedophiles in the middle of a nature preserve messy?” 

He had me there, so I pivot.“Maybe difficult is the better description.”

“Now we’re talking. Ain’t nothing worth doing if it doesn’t involve the heart. You have a time frame?”

I go with yesterday but tell him as long as it happens, we’d be good.

“He’s that bad?”

“Wants to take a few more with him on the way out is all. But yeah, it’s that bad.”

“And if no one shows?”

“You know these pieces of shit as well as I do. Some of them will show. Guaranteed. Even if we only get one, it’ll be worth it.”

“I can’t say you’re wrong.”

No, he couldn’t.

Marcus does most of heavy lifting, though I do put out lines myself. Online for the most part, and for obvious reasons. Marcus understands, and we both hoped Bishop would get to see his last creation house more than a single man, but no, I bury him on a Tuesday.

Was it easy? No. The blade of loss is sharper than murder, especially when you truly understand what someone stood for. But we finish, regardless of Rider being in the ground. 

We do what he would have wanted. We do what he deserved. 

We finish the work.


I watch them wake.  All of them within minutes of one another. All of them dropped through the top of the Killbox by Marcus. 

When the last one stands, I flick on the mic and deliver the news. “My name is Jeramiah Abrum. Outside of this box, my voice will be the last one you hear.”

Their faces are the same, each one struggling to understand. Good. Bishop wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

“It means I buried Bishop Rider six weeks ago today. It means each of you will become a message from beyond the grave.”

I smile in spite of myself.

I smile because of myself. 

My explanations continue, as does their exploration of their newfound confines. I go on about the small table of refreshments in the corner, suggesting it may or may not be in their best interest to ingest.

Of the eight on the screens before me, most of them are as out of shape as they are of breath. Neither of these things stop them from searching for a way out, however. My voice continues through all of this, coming in from the speakers above. 

“I haven’t done this alone. I want you to know this. The help I’ve had or given over the years becoming instrumental in taking down as many of you monsters as we could.”I go on. And on. The words spilling from me as I knew they would. I tell them of my father, of what he and my uncle did to Rider’s sister and mother. I mention Batista. I talk about Ray. And how, in the end, Bishop became a boogeyman. How he was the reason they’d woken up where they had.

Did I expect what happened next? Of course I did. These men, they are bottom feeders, feasting on children in the basements of houses and the backs of cars. They care about themselves alone. No one else. But here, now, when one of them becomes okay with ending it, this is what they stand up for?

It’s enough to make a grown man scream.

As fast as it escalates, it’s over just as quick, and then they are dumbfounded, each of them looking down at the motionless body before them.

They will fight each other first. You watch. They will try and prove themselves human by attempting to stop the ones who already see there is no escape.

Bishop had been right about so many things. Too many. But the decomposition that had just gone and entered the equation, this was the cherry I never thought we’d receive—each of them in the very near future having to deal with the vilest of smells for the remainder of their days.

Priceless. Every bit.

“Each of you are here because each of you had to know. The stories, they are what ensued you’d end up in there. Is he dead? Alive? Your fear, as he thought, would spur you on to find out.” I look my right, to the far end of the warehouse and the machines which sat there. We have used many of them over the years, but these were the big toys, some of them now under tarps, and some that tarps couldn’t quite cover. Cement mixer. Steamroller. Forklift. Burnishers and polishers. All have done their jobs. All have had their place. What I didn’t know was if things could ever be the same.

“The cancer ate him to nothing,” I say, the bottom of the mic unimpressed by my sudden pressure change in grip. “It did this while each of you chose to push yourselves into boys.”

Truth. Every bit.

Maybe they try to eat each other. Maybe they don’t.

In the end, they don’t try to eat each other, not how we thought they might, anyway.

Our numbers were off too, the last one expiring nineteen days beyond the rough estimate we’d set. But more than anything, the Killbox gave me closure. That’s not quite right though, even if I believed as much at the time. I’d been allowed to be part of something bigger than myself is all. The good. The bad. The Mapones and the Kincaids. Because what we attempted, it proved larger than any one thing. I’d like to say it was an honour as well. But it wasn’t. In the end, it became something more. 

Bishop, Batista, Ray. Or any of the lives we happened to change---it became something more.


“For what it’s worth, not many men would give up their life to do what he did.” I hear Marcus re-enter the warehouse about the time I’m ending my little speech. In a black T, boots and jeans, I look back at him leaning against the van.

“Not many men would get up from what he was put through,” I counter. Marcus nods. “And now?”

I stop directly in front of him. “And now we continue.”

“Jeramiah,” he says, one big black hand to my shoulder. “If only to say it out loud: There’s nothing wrong with bowing out. Your dues, you’ve paid them.” 

Was he right? Perhaps. But it wasn’t about being right. Not really. It was about leaving a mark. Where we could and when we could. 

Correction: It was about giving them pause.

Did Marcus know this? Of course he did. But I reiterate it all the same. And for a time, sure, I admit the thought of hanging it up crossed my mind. The notion was fleeting, however, colored by heavy loss. It created something in the process, though, a re-centering of sorts, and an approach I’d put away long ago, it found new life. Or old life, depending upon the way you looked at things. Either way, it meant progress was back on table in a way it’d never really been before, and certain things, they tend to work best when in conjunction with those willing to get their hands dirty.

It was a new day.  A new dawn.

Time to burn them all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Punjabi Crime

Since finishing Season 2 of Dehli Crime on Netflix, I've been looking for another crime show to watch that's set in India. I recently found one in Kohrra, released a few months ago, though this series is set in the Indian state of Punjab, the heart of Sikh culture.

The series starts in basic mystery fashion. A couple having sex in a field see a dead body near their car. The body turns out to be a young man who in a couple of days was supposed to wed in an arranged marriage. His best friend, a British guy who the victim studied with in England and who was with him the previous night, is missing. Onto the case comes veteran SI Balbir Singh and his assistant Garundi, both of whom, especially Singh, have complicated personal lives. The investigation begins, and over the series' six episodes, becomes at once a slow-burn procedural as well as a look at various aspects of Punjabi society: familial traditions, business practices, sexual mores, class issues, institutional corruption, and on and on. It's a dense and very interesting six hours or so of viewing, and it's a show that makes no effort to flatten or heroize its characters. There are a lot of characters in Kohrra, and nearly every single one of them is fallible in the most human and recognizable of ways. Conflicts abound between the people in the story and within the people. Of particular note is the lead, SI Singh, played by Suvinder Ricky, a police officer who is devoted to his job but who has loads of baggage. He's basically honest as a police officer, but he's been around long enough in a tainted system to have some blemishes on himself. The years of stress and wear show on his face, and he tells his younger assistant, Garundi, that the one thing Garundi doesn't want to do is end up like him, middle-aged and full of anger and sort of dead-ended in his position. Garundi is about to get married to a woman he loves, and one non-job-related thing Singh is implying to Garundi is that he hopes Garundi makes a better domestic life for himself than Singh has done. Singh, we see in flashbacks, was a poor husband. He was abusive even and finally drove his wife to suicide. He dotes on his young grandson but has all sorts of difficulties with his adult daughter, who, understandably, despises him. She acts out in ways that are utterly believable and that lead to him having a home life almost as fraught as his professional life. These are characters with messy lives, and not every problem has a neat or just solution. The mystery plot, too, gets quite involved and gnarly, but the crime does get solved by the end, and the resolution is clear and satisfying. There is lingering sadness and pain for some, hope and a degree of optimism for others. Maybe, just maybe, some people will even change a little bit for the better, and become more tolerant of others and their flaws. With its numerous characters and plot strands, Kohrra demands full attention throughout, but the payoffs are worth it.

Next Indian crime drama please!

Monday, October 23, 2023

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Remembering What We Have Forgotten with The Halloween Tree


Scott D. Parker

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.

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.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

A Killing Rain, Book One


This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at A KILLING RAIN from Faye Snowden

Dark, Southern gothic tale of homicide detective Raven Burns, with a complicated past and a desperate case to solve. Black Girls Lit recommends the first book, A Killing Fire "to crime fiction and mystery lovers and fans of Ruth Ware and Gillian Flynn.”

“Full-bodied and dynamic characters carry this one along a mystery, tying a brutal past with a bloody present that will keep you guessing right up to the finale.” — Unnerving Magazine on Book 1 in the series.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies

Kudos to the person who's not Stephen King and who writes a horror story set in Maine. What if you grow up in Maine and want to write horror? Aren't you intimidated setting your story in the state King "owns". It must be a bit like what Flannery O'Connor said about being a Southern writer after William Faulkner: "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." 

On the other hand, if you are from Maine, write stories, and gravitate toward horror, are you supposed to avoid the genre or set your stories somewhere else because Stephen King exists? Of course not. E.M. Roy, from Maine, has done neither, and good thing she hasn't, because her debut novel, Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies, is a poised and excellent example of small-town horror set in that state. Though her characters themselves acknowledge King in the book, her story and preoccupations and style are entirely her own. For a first book, for any book, it has little to no derivativeness. Like all writers, Roy has her literary influences, but already she has been able to incorporate them into her writing in such a way that she has her own distinct voice. And a fresh and compelling voice it is.

"There was never a terror upon this town," the novel begins. "The most trouble folks could get into was limited to speeding tickets and neighborly squabbles that ended with all parties involved getting brunch every day and laughing over drinks." The town mentioned is called Eston, and it's here that Leonora Bates, or  Leo, an eighteen-year-old girl, lives with her aunt and uncle. The first chapter has a heading of "After", and each successive chapter will be labeled "Before" or "After", the event they surround being the disappearance of another girl in Eston, Tate Mulder. Tate lives with her single-parent mother, and though they are in the same grade and have known each other for years, Tate and Leo become very close, in fact, fall in love, over the course of one particular summer. When Tate vanishes, Leo is devastated.

While Tate, who is Black, has long been a popular girl in school -- a top student, attractive, charismatic -- Leo has the reputation of being something of a misfit. Her best friend is her dog. She has had serious trauma in her past, the murder-suicide of her parents when she was a child, and that trauma, we find out, ignited violence in her. She has a way of keeping her distance from people, but when Tate unexpectedly makes overtures of friendship towards her, Leo is receptive. It turns out that Tate had some oddness of her own during childhood -- she once wandered out into the town woods and could not be found for a while -- and as a teenager, she has some decidedly esoteric interests. She spends a lot of time in the town library doing research on books with titles like Unexplained Phenomena. A Beginner's Guide to the Occult. Wicca. Women and New England Folktales, The Truth About Urban Legends, and A Practical Study of Crows: Their Prominence and Symbolism. She also has a pronounced interest in such things as "liminal spaces", areas and spots "at the boundary of what was real and not real, of what was Eston and what was outside, what was unexplainable..."

It's in the woods, over the creepy town catacombs, at a bizarre metal door leading to a place containing something, a force, a history, a power, that Tate and Leo come to confront the unexplainable. We see to what extent Tate's obsession with weird phenomena lies. Tate has led Leo to this uncanny door, and Leo, despite her fears, does not pull back from the adventure. Roy sets a number of vivid and strong horror set pieces at this location, and she is good with mood and tension. She builds suspense well with her before and after structure, gradually revealing the significance of the door and how it is tied to past horrors both Leo and the town would prefer to forget.

Roy writes with great empathy for her characters, and you care quite a bit about Leo and Tate. She writes a horror tale that is also a romance as well as a summer rite of passage story. Is anything more intense than first love in adolescence? And in a small town, so confined in certain ways, where nobody truly has secrets, it can be especially hard to shed personal baggage from the past. As much as you may want to leave that town in order to grow, you may find it difficult to leave if the town doesn't want you to leave. Black holes, as we know, have powerful gravitational pulls.

E. M. Roy evokes her setting fully, with crisp prose. Sentence by sentence, Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies is a pleasure to read. Roy doesn't overwrite. It's obvious that she is a horror fiction lover herself, and in a most impressive first book, she has come up with a vintage New England horror story.

You can get Let the Woods Keep Our Bodies here at Ghoulish Books.

Or here at Amazon.