Friday, September 30, 2016


I’m watching my sister unravel and it is unpleasant. That's Sandy in the picture above, holding me on her lap.

My parents adopted me when Sandy was fifteen, and she moved out and got married when I was four. My childhood memories of Sandy involve a lot of yelling. Of course, yelling was, and still is, a big part of my family. My dad yelled a lot, Sandy yelled at her husband, at her three kids, at me, at everybody. She shouted in conversation sometimes, and still does. It seems like she was always angry. And still is.

I remember learning to tell the difference between Sandy’s relaxed-happy and scary-happy. Relaxed-happy was safe; it meant she felt good and would be friendly and fun to be with for a while. Scary-happy was a big smile on an otherwise tense, angry face, an attempt to appear happy when, in fact, she was furious about something and could blow at any second. I first learned to identify relaxed-happy and scary-happy in my dad, who went through the same cycles regularly. But the thing was, you couldn’t always tell. It was never entirely safe.

When I was a kid, I reached a point where I refused to ride in a car if Sandy was at the wheel. She expressed her anger through her driving, and being in her car at those times was terrifying. She would peel out, drive like a lunatic at high speeds, slam on her brakes, take stupid risks. Wearing seat belts was not required by law then, but I always wore them if Sandy was driving. She often did this with her own kids in the car. So did Dad. I remember a number of times riding in the car with Dad at the wheel when someone, say, cut him off, or something—at least, that was his perception—and he got angry. Whatever our destination might have been, it quickly took a back seat to sticking it to that S.O.B. in the other car. Dad would stomp on the accelerator until we caught up with the person and he could exact his revenge by cutting in front of the guy and slamming on his brakes, or something.

When she’s feeling good, Sandy has always been excessively generous and will do anything for you. When she's feeling good. That can change pretty quickly, though. Just like Dad. Those good periods have grown much farther apart over the decades in my experience with Sandy, and these days, I honestly can’t remember the last one. She’s always on edge now, a possible threat, like dark clouds moving in off the horizon with possible tornado weather to come.

She talked to me a lot when I was a kid and told me everything. I didn’t say much, just listened. She talked about her husband, with whom she fought constantly, sometimes physically, for all the years they were married. She told me about the guy she was having an affair with. And she told me when her doctor-of-the-moment urged her to get therapy. She told me a few times about being directed to therapy by her doctors. She tried a couple of therapists but never stayed with them long. Instead, she went on living as she always had, getting angrier and angrier. She did not have a problem, to hear her tell it. The problem was everyone else. Her doctors didn’t know anything, therapy was a waste of time, her husband was an asshole, and at every turn, she was the victim of the stupidity or carelessness or perceived malice of others.

I was not exempt. Growing up in that family, where the primary emotion was anger, followed by fear and guilt, left its mark on me. I've struggled with anger throughout my life because it has always been there, waiting to spring out. I’ve engaged in a few screaming matches with Sandy. But I recognized it and have been working on it my whole life. With awareness of the problem, it gets easier to deal with until one has finally adjusted to life outside the poisonous bubble of the Garton family. Awareness is vital. This time, though, when Sandy started screaming, something different happened. I’ll get to that in a moment; it’s why I’ve written this down.

Telling people off seems to be the closest thing to a talent that runs in the Garton family. My paternal grandparents did it, Dad did it, and oh, boy, does Sandy do it. A lot. Always has. Mom congratulates her and never fails to be supportive of her efforts. She’ll sometimes say to me, “Oh, Sandy gave it to him good.” Sandy’s current husband used to be a laid back, easygoing guy. These days, she brags about how he told off this or that person for whatever reason.  “Boy, he really set that guy straight!” He’s also been having heart problems. All these years with Sandy apparently have taken a toll on him.

But lately, it has gotten worse. Just as it got worse for Dad in later years. As time went on, he retreated more and more from the world and holed himself up in their little house and hardly ever left. He died in 2010, and it was only then that I learned just how bad his condition had become.

There used to be a narrow pass-through between the side of our house and the work shed Dad had built. When I was little kid, it was possible to walk all the way through it, but by the time I was in high school, it was packed full of boxes and barrels that Dad stored there, all packed in tightly. When Mom and Sandy cleaned out the pass through after he died, they discovered that those boxes and barrels were filled with garbage. Just wadded up paper and old plastic bags and...garbage. He had been hoarding it for reasons only he understood.

He had become more violent than usual and tried to strangle my mother at one point, clawing her neck and throat badly, cutting her with his nails. She lied to everyone about the injury—remember, kids, always protect the abuser!—and didn’t tell the truth until after he died. He had no friends. Even his oldest and closest friend abandoned him before the friend died. Why? Because my dad treated people like shit. So does Sandy. They respect no one and do nothing to earn anyone else’s respect, although they certainly demand it from others. I don’t think they know what that word means. People don’t like to be yelled at, ordered around, and treated like a child. That’s how Sandy treats other people. And she’s going down the same road Dad traveled.

Now, I have realized, Sandy is coming unraveled. Her oldest son abruptly moved out of town with his wife and children some years ago and cut off the family, returning none of their calls. Sandy insists that this is the fault of his wife, who she maintains is pushy and bossy. If someone told her that her oldest son was a spineless, pussy-whipped idiot who did everything his wife told him to do, she would immediately be ready for a fight. But that’s what she chooses to think of him. It’s a bad idea to suggest that perhaps Sandy’s lifetime of tantrums might have something to do with it. No, no, it’s his wife! She's to blame! Sandy didn’t do anything wrong. But that “anything wrong,” as far as they’re concerned, does not apply to screaming at people and behaving like a giant, frightening toddler, all behavior that is perfectly acceptable in my family as long as it comes from the family's chief abuser. I don’t know exactly what happened between Sandy and my nephew, I am unacquainted with the specific details, but I know Sandy and her behavior. I know how she treats people, and I know how she explodes and takes no prisoners when she doesn’t get her way. I’m sure there was a lot of yelling and screaming involved, the bulk of it no doubt coming from her. My nephew is probably the smartest person in the family because he just walked away from the insanity. Good for him.

Sandy has been banned from the office of one of my mother’s doctors for throwing a tantrum and yelling at the doctor. Getting banned from a doctor’s office is not something that happens to a stable, mentally healthy person. One might think it would give her pause, that she might take stock, engage in a little self-reflection. But, no. Damned doctor didn’t know anything, anyway.

When my mother was in the hospital earlier this year, Sandy barked orders at hospital employees as if they worked for her. As we walked back from the cafeteria one day, she spotted a little water on the floor near a drinking fountain, stopped, turned, and shouted down the corridor, “Somebody come clean up this mess!” I wanted the floor to open up and eat me. When she stopped walking, I went on and picked up my pace a little so people wouldn’t know I was with her. But if, at that moment, I had suggested that she not shout in the hospital, she would have said, “I didn’t shout.” She would have said that instantly after shouting. I’ve seen her do it. That’s how things work in Sandy’s world, and you’d better go along with it or you’re out on your ass. The thing is, I can think of a lot worse things that could befall one than being kicked out of Sandy’s world on one’s ass. That’s kind of a plus.

These are only the things I know about. Who knows what else she's done? This kind of thing used to be only occasional, but not anymore.

The last few times I spoke to her on the phone did not go well. I made one of the calls, but the other two times she called me. The calls were very short because Sandy was already angry. None of them lasted a full thirty seconds, and all were mostly her shouting at me before hanging up. The last time, she shouted, “You can fuck off and die!” And I decided that was the last time it would happen. Hanging up on people is something Sandy does with great regularity, and that particular time was, I concluded, the last time she would ever do it to me. I stopped taking her calls and refused to talk to her on the phone.

Sandy never has to face any consequence for her behavior, for the way she treats people. She is insulated by her enablers. She gets angry and yells at somebody in a store, walks away, and goes home to the enablers, who always assure her that she is right and everyone else is wrong. She did not take my refusal to talk to her on the phone well. She and I spoke on the phone so rarely and so briefly that I don’t think it would be noticeable to either of us if we stopped altogether. In fact, it wasn’t until I stopped taking her calls that she began to call me more frequently.

Mom finally asked me why I wasn't answering Sandy’s calls and I told her, “Because she’s never known how to behave on the phone and I’m tired of being screamed at and hung up on.” This, it turns out, has been the source of a lot of anger in Sandy. Apparently, it has been eating at her.

I was supposed to get something for Sandy while I was in town recently, and I stopped at Mom’s to pick up the money I needed for the purchase. Mom said that Sandy no longer wanted me to do it. When I asked why, Mom said, “Because you won’t talk to her on the phone." And, because my first answer was absolutely unacceptable, she asked again, "Why won’t you talk to her on the phone?” I said, “I’ve told you why.” She said, “But that was a long time ago!”

In my family, the most important job my mother has is to protect the abuser. For a long time, it was Dad. When I was growing up, if I ever said anything about Dad’s habit of dragging me around by the hair or beating me, her response was always the same: “But he loves you.” When I mustered the courage to suggest that there might be something wrong with Dad, she said, “How can you say that? He loves you!”

Now Dad is gone and Sandy is carrying on his legacy. After screaming at me, “You can fuck off and die!” there was never any apology because that would require acknowledging that it happened. Things like that don’t really happen in my family, and if you bring them up, you will be told that nobody knows what you’re talking about, that never happened, you must be confused.

And now, when I arrive, Mom immediately begins to set up the situation. Sandy is angry because I stopped talking to her on the phone. That is the problem here, according to Mom. That is the core problem that needs to be addressed, nothing else. It’s not Sandy’s behavior, which resulted in my not talking to her on the phone—that doesn’t even come into it as far as Mom is concerned. Sandy’s behavior is not an issue, it is simply something we accept, something we deal with, like the weather or gravity. Just like Dad. I have disrupted this system by reacting to her behavior and pointing it out—not to punish her but to prevent myself from being screamed at and hung up on anymore, but that’s irrelevant to Mom—and she greets me upon arriving by making sure that I know I am the problem here. Mom has always been very good at her job of protecting the abuser.

I went out to the RV in the back yard with the intention of having a conversation with Sandy. But the word “conversation” does not have quite the same meaning to most people that it has in my family. Most people think of a conversation as a friendly exchange of information and ideas conducted in a civil manner—and that’s all I wanted. In my family, though, a “conversation” is the exact opposite of all that in every conceivable way. They seem to enjoy shouting at each other. I do not. Maybe it’s a genetic thing, I don’t know. (Remember—I was adopted.) Anyway, in the RV, I told Sandy I was happy to pick up her item in town. The exchange went something like this:

“Why won’t you talk to me on the phone?” she says.

“You know why.”

“No I don’t!”

“Yes, you do. I won’t talk to you on the phone because I don’t like being screamed at and hung up on.”

“That was a long time ago,” she says, her voice getting louder.

“Just earlier this year, Sandy. It’s happened before that, though, and it’ll happen again, but only if I let it. And I won’t.”

“When did I ever hang up on you?” Louder still.

Keeping my voice level, never raising it, I say, “Sandy, there’s a word for what you’re doing right now. It’s called gaslighting. I don’t appreciate it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Big deal, I hung up on you once and I told you to fuck off and die. YOU HURT MY FEELINGS!” This was shouted loudly.

“How did I hurt your feelings?”

“With what you said!”

“What did I say?” I honestly don’t know what she’s referring to. In our most recent phone calls, I had no time to say anything in the seconds she spent being angry and then hanging up.

“I don’t remember.”

“Well, if you don’t remember, it must not have hurt you very much.”

Then she begins screaming, at the top of her lungs, over and over, “YOU HURT MY FEELINGS! YOU HURT MY FEELINGS! YOU HURT MY FEELINGS!”

That’s when I realize that she’s not just angry, she’s falling apart, here. She’s going full-tilt Bozo with all the lights, whistles, and sirens. All because she was forced to face a single consequence of her obnoxious behavior.

I say, “Sandy, this is why your son left. This behavior right here. Nobody likes this and they’ll take it only so long before—”


She has been standing in the tiny kitchen, but now, she comes around the counter toward me. That makes me nervous because she’s sometimes violent, and she’s a big woman, a few inches taller than I, six feet, and...just big. And extremely angry. I think describing her as enraged would be appropriate. From that point on, everything she says is screamed as loudly as she can and I’m unable to understand all of it. Her face turns so purple, it seems her head has been replaced with an egg plant. The veins in her forehead pop and the muscles in her neck become rigid and pronounced as she continues to advance, backing me toward the door of the RV, screaming and screaming.

She is completely unhinged and it’s a frightening thing to see. There used to be a time when I could have a civil conversation with Sandy, but for a long time now, I’ve stuck mostly to small talk because if I say something she doesn’t agree with or doesn’t want to hear, she gets angry. Instantly. And loudly.

Suddenly, there in the RV, she starts screaming about other things, unrelated things, dredging up old complaints—and then she screams something that really drives home to me the fact that she is much worse than ever before.

“You say Dad beat you, but you’re just making that shit up, it’s all in your head, because you’re FUCKING SICK!”

Sandy and I always had one thing about which we could commiserate: our dad. Like me, Sandy often said she grew up in fear of him because it was difficult to tell when he might blow. His anger and violence were terrifying, and she has talked about it openly my whole life. She has said countless times that he used to pick her up off the floor by her hair when he was angry. He did that to me, too. A lot of hair-pulling, kicking, punching.

But now, I’m making it all up. And I’m sick. She did not live with my parents and me, of course, because she had a family of her own to worry about and yell at, so she’s hardly an expert on my childhood, just as I know only what she’s told me about her own. But reality-grounded details like that are unimportant. What’s important is adjusting the past to fit her present. How could Dad have been a bad person when Sandy has virtually become him? If Dad was bad, Sandy is bad, and we can’t have that.

By now, she’s standing so close, her bloated, purple face consumes my entire field of vision. And she’s still screaming, veins standing out on her forehead, eyes bulging. She tells me to get the fuck out and never come back, then launches into her final tirade, screaming like a lunatic, “YOU’RE BIPOLAR! YOU’RE BIPOLAR! YOU’RE BIPOLAR!” Over and over.

Looking back on it (it happened yesterday as I type this), I can see how funny it is. I see the irony of Sandy having a full-blown screaming breakdown and shouting at me—or at anyone, for that matter—“YOU’RE BIPOLAR!” again and again. I admit, it’s pretty damned funny. But it wasn’t at the time. It was quite upsetting and by the time it was over, my whole body was shaking and I was breathing as if I’d just gone for a run. Watching her come to pieces was scary and exhaustingly stressful.

I’ve been standing on the porch, staring in open-mouthed horror at Sandy as she screams at me. I finally walk away from the RV. Mom is coming out of the back door of her house. I ask her if she heard all of that (I have no doubt that the entire neighborhood heard it) and she says yes, and I say, “I hope you remember it,” because my family does more writing than I do simply by rewriting every day of their lives to suit them after the fact. Mom says, “Well, I don’t know what you said to her.” And that tells you everything you need to know about my family.

My sister, a rather large 68-year-old woman, was melting down, coming completely unglued, screaming her head off in a purple-faced rage while I remained perfectly calm. But Mom had to find out what I said first before she could come to any conclusions about the situation, and apparently she believed my sister, the woman shrieking like an escaped mental patient, might be a reliable source for that information. I, of course, could not be trusted, so she didn't bother to ask. Sandy’s behavior was, to my mom, perfectly acceptable, and she assumed there was probably a good reason for it. Mom was doing the only job she has really ever known.

At that point, I simply got the hell out of there without another word.

I’ve always been aware of these problems, but it wasn’t until Sandy’s engorged face was about an inch from mine and her breath was hot on my skin as she bellowed like a bull and screamed like a banshee that I realized exactly how sick she has become. She’s already lost a son, and I’m certainly not going anywhere near her again. At this point, I’m taking her illness very seriously and staying away. Frankly, I’m afraid of her.

I’m not crying victim here. I’m fine. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good about this. When it happened, my emotions were not engaged. Not at all. I felt nothing. I did not start yelling back at Sandy. I have in the past. I may not share their crazy-tainted blood, but being raised in that household, with all the yelling and screaming and beating and crazy religion, was enough for me to simply absorb some of their insanity. But this time, I remained distant, disconnected. I did not allow Sandy to drag me down into her insane, angry maelstrom of mental chaos. And I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. All I did was stand there and watch as she completely and noisily lost her shit.

It might not sound like much to others, but for me, that’s a pretty big victory. None of my buttons were pushed. Sandy didn’t even have access to them. Nothing she said got under my skin. I remember only two clear thoughts going through my head as Sandy put on her little show. The first was, Holy shit, she really is crazy. The other was, That's not me. I'm not one of them.

I’m not looking for pity, I’m just writing about it because that’s what I do, and I needed to get it out. My readers have been the best therapists in the world, whether they’ve known it or not. If you look back over the fiction I’ve written in the last thirty-plus years, you’ll find this stuff. It’s all there in one form or another, scattered throughout my novels and stories. But I’m not writing that kind of fiction at the moment, and I’m working on a deadline, and I just needed to quickly get this on some pages where it could be read. Thank you for indulging me by making it all the way to the end of this thing.

Some of the horror fiction you read comes from more than simple imagination and has roots buried in some real toxic soil somewhere. This is a glimpse of mine.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

No, I Do Not Believe In Werewolves.

I really don’t.  I’ve found the most shocking thing about being a horror writer is how many people think I do simply because I’ve written novels about werewolves.

For the last two decades, I’ve been denouncing a book I wrote called In a Dark Place, which was initially published as “the story of a true haunting.”  I’ve been denouncing it because the book and the two “demonologists” who "investigated" the "case," Ed and Lorraine Warren, were frauds.  (I made all of those quotation marks in the air with my fingers.)  I made every effort to make the book entertaining and scary and I encourage people to read it for that, but it's certainly not a "true story."  (It has been reprinted without those claims at my insistence.)  In the process of denouncing the book and the Warrens, I’ve also expressed my feelings about the entire paranormal industry, which are no different.  And yet, people are still appalled to learn that I don’t believe in ghosts because I wrote a ghost story called The Loveliest Dead.  Or that I don’t believe in vampires because I wrote about them in three novels.

Others seem to think that writers condone everything they write about.  My father believed that if I wrote about violence, then I condoned it, and if I didn’t condone it, I wouldn’t write about it.  Of course, my dad left school for good in the sixth grade.  But that particular excuse is not always available.

I once approached a respected, well-educated horror writer for a blurb for one of my werewolf novels, both of which include brutal rapes committed by werewolves.  She explained, quite haughtily, that she had heard my books depicted violence toward women and she could not endorse that.  (I wonder what she would have thought had she actually read them.  We'll never know.)  This suggests to me that because I’ve depicted violence against women in my fiction, she believes that I condone violence against women.  She gave me no reason to come to any other conclusion.  Of course, it doesn’t matter what her reasoning was because I cannot take seriously anyone who judges books not by merit but by agenda — including books she hasn’t read.

Things like rape and other violent acts do exist, they do occur, they are part of life on planet earth.  If fiction cannot reflect that, then it is useless and has no purpose.  If art cannot hold a mirror up to the entire scope of the human experience, then it has no other reason to exist.  And if you can’t endorse horror fiction that depicts violence toward women and only because it depicts violence toward women, what the hell are you doing in the genre?

For those who have not read my fiction, I have always made a great effort to portray violence of any kind, including rape, as horrifically as possible.  I don’t want it to appear on the pages of my work as anything but what it is, one of the many horrible things we humans have been doing to each other for ages now and show no signs of stopping.

Rape is an act of violence, although I have seen it depicted in fiction as a kind of rough foreplay, which I personally find disgusting.  That is not how I depict rape in my fiction.  I do not, for the record, condone rape.  I do not condone rape by werewolves.  Nor do I condone rape by any other fictional, nonexistent creatures like vampires, lizard men, interdimensional monsters, or honest, decent human beings who are successful politicians — none of which I believe in, by the way.

We as a species seem to be having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between fiction and fact, fantasy and reality.  I blame video games and binge-watching.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them by Frank Langella

“See anything you like, professor?”  That’s what Frank Langella asked Laurence Olivier after running through the room naked.

He knew Bette Davis late in her life, when she was, he writes, “heading toward her grave resolutely maintaining the courage to be hated.”

Rex Harrison was a “son of a bitch.”

Upon their first meeting, Anthony Perkins asked him, “How big is your cock?”

In a TV version of The Mark of Zorro, Yvonne de Carlo played his mother in front of the cameras while treating him “like a pretty girl in the back seat of a convertible on a hot summer night” off camera.

These are some of the names dropped in Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Have Known Them, Frank Langella’s sexy, funny, bittersweet, and sometimes downright sad memoir of his decades as a stage and screen actor.  Each of the sixty-five chapters in the book covers someone he knew or met or had some connection with, however briefly, someone who is no longer with us and can no longer protest or, worse, sue.

Langella happily confesses his own youthful narcissism in what is, however entertaining, a litany of narcissists, people firmly convinced that they are the center of the universe.  While spending time with such people is rarely an agreeable experience for us civilians, Langella, having a typically inflated actor’s ego himself, is able to cut through all of that in most cases and show us the person within all that bluster and pomp.

This is not exactly a showbiz tell-all.  Rather than giving us every sordid detail, Langella teases us with bits and pieces of his life, glimpses of past moments and experiences, and manages to leave us wanting more.  Dishy without being mean, it’s a breezy book filled with familiar faces and names (to people old enough to recognize all the names, anyway) that makes for pleasant reading for anyone who enjoys books about show business.  Best of all, unlike so many showbiz memoirs, it doesn’t leave us feeling like we need to take a shower with lye soap and a steel brush.

While I’m on the subject, I want to point out one of my favorite Frank Langella performances in a movie that never received much attention.  In Starting Out in the Evening, based on the novel by Brian Morton (which I have not read), Langella plays a formerly celebrated writer who has been forgotten by virtually everyone as he works on his final novel, which he has been writing for a decade.  The story involves his relationship with his daughter (Lili Taylor) and a graduate student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose), who tries to convince him to let her pick his brain for her Master’s thesis.  Langella gives a quietly powerful performance in a movie that is just as quietly powerful.  See it if you can.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Danny Thomas, Cesar Romero, and Perfecto Telles Walk Into a Bar . . .

The title of this blog post will make no sense to you unless you’re a regular listener of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast

If you are a regular listener, then those three names just set off an explosion of information inside your head, which resulted in you laughing out loud and embarrassing yourself because now you have to explain to the people around you what it was you found so funny.

You’re on your own with that.  I’ve tried doing that very thing and it’s extremely difficult to do without sounding like a gibbering lunatic who may, at any moment, begin to fling his own waste at others.  You probably already know that not everyone understands your love for this podcast.  I discovered it a couple of weeks ago and have been making my way through the shows, and it is my new favorite thing.  But I know others won’t get it.  That’s OK.

Everybody knows who Gilbert Gottfried is, and while opinions of him vary about as widely as it is possible for opinions to vary on a performer, I think he’s a brilliant, explosively funny comic, which is why, like him or not, everybody knows who he is.

His cohost on the podcast is Frank Santopadre, who I was not familiar with when I started listening.  He’s a comedy writer who’s written for live events like roasts and award shows and he produced The Joy Behar Show on HLN, and he knows his stuff.  The “stuff” to which I refer is comedy history, old movies and TV shows, and particularly bad movies and TV shows.  Frank is funny, but on the podcast, he’s the grounded one.  Frank is never the one who says, “Can I see your wife’s tits?”  Frank is the one who apologetically says things like, “It was the Cesar Romero reference earlier, it got him worked up.”

Together, Gilbert and Frank discuss the kind of stuff that my brain, on its own and with no effort from me whatsoever, used to absorb automatically when I was growing up.  The podcast itself is named after a Bert I. Gordon movie that mesmerized me when I was about eight years old, The Amazing Colossal Man, which was followed by the sequel War of the Colossal Beast

It’s very possible that I spent all of those years watching Creature Features every Saturday night and being hypnotized by anything with a monster or some kind of special effect in it only so I could enjoy Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast so much all these decades later.

I also grew up watching all of the comics and performers they talk about — Jackie Gleason, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers (Gilbert does an eerily on-the-money impression of Groucho in his final years), the Bowery Boys (or whatever the hell they were being called at any given time), George Burns, Red Skelton, Totie Fields, Dick Van Dyke, the list goes on and on.  Oh, and Milton Berle, I can’t forget Milton Berle.  You know, because of the penis.

Gilbert and Frank talk to comics, actors, writers, directors, people who have some connection to those old days or who were part of them, like Chuck McCann, who was a beloved staple of television for both kids and adults and, significant to me, starred in a forgotten 1970s late-night Norman Lear soap opera spoof set in a world in which men and women have reverse roles called All That Glitters.  Another guest was Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on Get Smart, and talk show host Dick Cavett, singer and actor Frankie Avalon from all those beach movies, and Larry Storch from F Troop, and TV’s Batman Adam West, and the brilliant illustrator Drew Friedman, writer and producer Bill Persky, who’s written for every major sitcom on TV since McHale's Navy, and talk show host Joe Franklin, and Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster, and Marilyn Michaels, an impressionist I was in awe of growing up, and actors like James Karen and Paul Dooley — all of these people who are like familiar ghosts emerging from the misty past, but who are still vibrant and funny.  Well . . . except Joe Franklin, who is no longer vibrant because he’s dead and who really wasn’t that funny in the first place.

If you don’t know who any of those people are, this may not be the podcast for you. But even so, you should give it a listen because it’s also hysterically funny.  I often find myself gasping for breath with tears in my eyes.  Of course, if you don’t like dick jokes or show business anecdotes involving bizarre things like a coprophagic night club comic or TV theme songs sung by Gilbert Gottfried, again, this podcast may not be suited to your tastes.

It’s hard to explain why I’ve clicked so well with this show.  Gilbert and Frank discuss — sometimes in exhaustive detail — the kind of stuff I noticed growing up but have never been able to talk about with most people without sounding a little . . . you know, off.

Like the terrible backdrops on what I’ve always referred to as the “color” Honeymooners.  No, I’m not referring to the 2005 movie The Honeymooners starring an all-black cast, I’m referring to the “Honeymooners” sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1970.  That was the first time the Kramdens and the Nortons were seen in color, which is why I refer to it as the “color” Honeymooners.

It was also the first time those characters sang and danced.  I wasn’t quite four when the show premiered, so it’s one of my earliest memories of professional show business comedy, and I didn’t know any better.  I didn’t know that nobody wanted to hear Jackie Gleason sing anything, or that an earlier incarnation of The Honeymooners existed that showed Gleason and Art Carney and the rest of the cast working at the height of their talents.  I had been using the bathroom for only half my life, so what the hell did I know?

I have not seen any of those shows since they first aired, but I’ve always remembered that, for some reason, the Kramdens and Nortons were traveling at one point, and in those episodes, the backdrops were ugly and amateurish, nothing more than simple drawings suggesting cities or landscapes, if I remember them correctly.  Those backdrops always bothered me because they did not live up to the standard of quality held by all the variety shows on TV as far as I could tell, and I watched as many as I could.

There were only three networks in those olden days and they all did pretty much the same stuff, and at that time, it was mostly a lot of spies, satirical superheroes, and comedy-variety shows, and no matter how idiotic things might have gotten, it all looked professional and attractive.  But those backdrops on the “Honeymooners” sketches SUCKED!  And Gilbert Gottfried is the only other human being I know of who noticed and was bothered by the same damned thing.  THAT is why people like me are devoted to this podcast.  It scratches itches for us that no one else can even find.

More than simply entertaining us, Gilbert and Frank are serving as archivists for a fading era of show business.  They booked Jack Carter for a show and he promptly died.  As far as I know, they did Joe Franklin’s last interview.  They have to keep crossing names off their prospective guest list because people keep dying.  If these aging celebrities were smart, they’d stay the hell away from this podcast because it’s always surprising on the rare occasion when Gilbert references someone who’s still alive, so if he wants to talk to you, your days are probably numbered.

I wish they had started earlier so they could have had guests like, say, Gene Rayburn, and anyone from Match Game, or comics like George Gobel and Red Buttons, or classic sitcom stars like Abe Vigoda, who just died, or Bob Crane.  I bet Gilbert’s first question for Crane would be, “Is it true that you like to make movies of yourself fucking women?”

If you enjoy movies that are so bad they’re entertaining, Gilbert and Frank have you covered.  Along with many others, they frequently discuss Skidoo, Otto Preminger’s 1968 psychedelic disaster starring Jackie Gleason who trips on acid, Carol Channing who does a strip tease, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, podcast favorite Cesar Romero (sans orange wedges), Peter Lawford, Groucho Marx as God, two more Batman villains Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, with music by Harry Nilsson, in what is regarded by many to be the worst movie ever made by a major director and a major studio.  Avalon was a guest and discussed his experience working on the movie.

And if you have any interest in glass-topped coffee tables or if you love citrus fruits, this is your podcast.

I’ve gotten so much enjoyment from these guys in the last few weeks.  I know there are other people out there whose priorities in life are as weird as mine who will enjoy these guys and their guests as much as I do, and I wanted to spread the word.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Here's to Those Who Make Us Laugh

On Thursday, March 24, I logged onto the computer in the afternoon and the first thing I saw was a headline stating that Garry Shandling had died at the age of 66.  I stared at it for several long seconds, then looked for any indication that it was satire, or some kind of marketing campaign, or something, anything but the truth.

No such luck.

The older I get and the more of my favorite funny people die, the more I understand just how much, and how deeply, I value them.  I’m sure it’s a little out of proportion.  When Johnny Carson died, I cried.  George Carlin’s death was like losing a friend.  When I learned that Joan Rivers had died, I wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head.  The news that Robin Williams had committed suicide darkened my mood for days, and it took some time before I could watch his recorded performances, whether in movies or on stage, without tearing up.  On one level, I know it’s absurd.  I knew none of these people, I’d never even met them.  I really have no idea what kind of people they were in their personal lives.  For all I knew, they hated dogs and cats, beat their kids, or drugged women so they could have sex with them while they were unconscious.  But . . .

. . . every time I saw them, they made me happy.  No matter what was going on in my life at the time, no matter how down I might have been, they made me drop my problems and laugh.  The more life I live, the more I understand what an awesome, miraculous thing that is.

There is no way to control laughter.  When we laugh, we surrender ourselves to feeling good, no matter how bad we might feel at the time.  It’s an explosive thing, totally involuntary.  You can try to fake it, and you might fool others with your artificial laughter.  But you cannot fool yourself.  Real laughter is an uncontrollable response to something that — somehow, almost magically — reaches inside of us and tickles us in some mysterious place, pushes internal buttons that cannot be ignored.

We all have internal buttons, and when we refer to someone pushing our buttons, we usually mean it in a bad way.  Someone has made us angry or hurt us by pushing a button that elicits a negative response.  I would guess that we all have more of those buttons than the ones that make us laugh.  The laughter buttons are buried deep in our viscera.  They’re much harder to find, especially as we get older.  But when someone does find one (or more) and pushes it, we are rendered helpless and we surrender to that involuntary, explosive response, like a sneeze.  Maybe sneezing is a bad analogy because it’s unlikely that someone can make us sneeze, but a genuine laugh is just as spontaneous and uncontrollable.

As far as I’m concerned, the people who can make me laugh are akin to wizards and witches, people with supernatural powers.  They don’t know me, we’ve never met, and yet they are able to find that button buried deep inside me that makes me open my mouth and throw back my head and let loose.  Think about it for a while.  We take it for granted, but it is a truly amazing and mysterious thing.

I am in awe of anyone who can make me laugh, especially if it is a deliberate act performed by someone who has never met me, knows nothing about me or my life, and yet is capable of reaching inside me and finding and pushing that deeply hidden button.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young boy.  I started writing as soon as I was capable of it, and most of what I wrote was horror, very dark and violent.  I’ve written a great deal about what a salvation horror movies and fiction were to me when I was growing up because my childhood in a perpetually frightening apocalyptic religious cult, with the added threat of a physically and emotionally abusive father, kept me in a continuous state of terror.  Scary movies and stories were not a genuine threat, I knew they weren’t real, but they could scare the hell out of me in a way that was fun and enjoyable and safe, and it was a release from the more real terrors I faced.  I wrote horror as a natural response to that, as a cathartic release.  It was a way of stabbing my middle finger in the air to all the fears that I lived with back then.

At the same time, I sought out comedy, anything that would make me laugh, whether it was Mad magazine or TV sitcoms.  The funny people who brightened my childhood were Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Totie Fields, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett — don’t get me started, I could go on like this for hours because, my god, the list is endless.  Even though I was an almost obsessive fan of horror and spent so much time watching and reading it and, in my own primitive and childish way, writing it, my secret desire was to be Rob Petrie when I grew up.  For those not familiar with the name, that was the character played by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  He was the head comedy writer on The Alan Brady Show and wrote comedy in an office — with a piano, no less! — with Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers (incidentally, Dawn and I have cats named Buddy and Sally), writing monologues and sketches for the show, with occasional visits from Mel Cooley, Alan’s son-in-law.  That was my dream job.  Hell, it still is, even though I’ve since learned that a room full of working TV writers bears no resemblance to that today.  And it probably didn’t then.  I mean, it’s TV, so everything is softened, watered down.  Alan Brady never held Buddy Sorrell out of a window in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, high over Michigan Avenue, as Sid Caesar once did to Mel Brooks.

It was The Dick Van Dyke Show that made me start noticing the names in the credits — written by, created by.  Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, writer of 54 of the 158 episodes, and the man who played Alan Brady, was an early writing idol of mine, as were Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who co-created and sometimes wrote Get Smart, along with Neil Simon, who wrote The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite and The Star-Spangled Girl and The Out of Towners and other things that made me laugh, along with so many other practitioners of what was, to me, an amazing and mysterious art.  I wanted to be them, too, when I grew up.  Or maybe I just wanted to be Jewish, I don’t know.  As a child, I was mystified by how they managed to get such an uncontrollable response from me as laughter.  Like I said, they were wizards.

How did they do it?  What kind of secret knowledge did they possess?  What they did seemed so impossibly far above me that I would never be able to reach it, like writing music or having a baby.  I knew what was scary and had some confidence that I could work within that, but the ability to create laughter out of thin air — that seemed like magic.  Like sawing a woman in half or making doves appear out of nowhere.  Of course, I soon learned that those things were merely manufactured illusion.  But generating laughter?  That is some real, genuine, unfakeable magic.

The pros make it look effortless.  A comedian walks onto the stage, goes to the microphone, and starts talking to us in a way that makes us laugh and makes us believe that those words are spontaneous, those movements and gestures and that body language are natural and unrehearsed.  A stand-up comedian is an actor, and as with all actors, the really talented ones convince you that they’re not acting, they’re just standing there, talking to you, and being funny.  But first, a stand-up comedian is a writer.  The entire performance on the stage is first written.  That’s a damned juggling act, and I am in awe of those who do it well.

When I write, I do it alone in my office, and when I’m done with the story or book, I deliver it to its destination, and move on to the next, which I also write alone in my office.  The worst thing that can happen to me as a writer is having to write a synopsis of a book, whether it’s one I haven’t written yet or one I have, it doesn’t matter.  I complain about this bitterly at every opportunity.  A stand-up comedian, on the other hand, then has to test the written material on stage in front of a group of strangers at various levels of inebriation.  What a terrifying thought!  The response is immediate — laughter or silence, possibly heckling.  (If you’re a novelist, now that I’ve made you consider that for a moment and imagine yourself having to do that with your work, you’re probably going to have nightmares about it.)

What I’m trying to say is that we tend to take comedians for granted and enjoy their work without ever giving any thought to precisely what it is they do while standing at that microphone.  It’s astonishing how much they have to master to convince us that they’re just telling us some funny stories and observations in a conversational way that happens to bend us over laughing.

When they leave us, people who have that talent and go to all that work to make us laugh always leave behind a painful silence once filled with laughter.  In the last five years, we have lost some spectacular talent in comedy.  People like Patrice O’Neal, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, David Brenner, John Pinette, Rick Mayall, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Jan Hooks, Taylor Negron, Mike Nichols, Reynaldo Rey, Rick Ducommun, Stan Freberg, Anne Meara, Jack Carter.  Garry Shandling is the latest, and unfortunately he will not be the last.  But like all of those other people, Shandling made us laugh in his own unique way.  Other comedians do impressions of his distinctive voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms, as they do of other legendary comedians from Jack Benny on, and they will be doing Shandling impressions for a long, long time to come, but they are only impressions.  They cannot not push our buttons in the way that only Garry Shandling could because they are not Garry Shandling.  No one is Garry Shandling.  Now, not even Garry Shandling is Garry Shandling.  He’s been cancelled.

But we still have the reruns.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

VORTEX: The Story Behind the Book

Mt. Shasta is many things to many people.  In its mystical slopes, some people see a sleeping woman, others a sleeping Indian, and still others an Indian princess.  I see horror fiction.

It is a beautiful sight, with a lovely, small town at its foot bearing the mountain’s name.  The drive alone — from my house, it’s 45 minutes on I-5 — is breathtaking as it winds past dark forests and craggy, gray peaks.  If it weren’t for all the traffic, you’d swear you were in Middle Earth.  I have returned to Mt. Shasta many times over the years.  In 1987, I attended the Harmonic Convergence there, a New Age fair of channels, psychics, healers, drum circles, and vendors selling just about every woo-woo goo-gaw you can think of and some that never occurred to you.  Dawn and I have stayed at the nearby Dunsmuir Railroad Park Resort on a few occasions, and we enjoy visiting the town of Mt. Shasta.  But I’ve returned to Mt. Shasta a few times in my fiction, as well.

My novel Dark Channel was the first story I set there, inspired by a combination of my visit to the Harmonic Convergence and popular channel J.Z. Knight.  In The Loveliest Dead, psychic Lily Rourke owned a New Age book store called the Crystal Well.  The area has shown up in disguise, as well.  In The Folks (1 and 2, both of which will be available later this year), Pinecrest and Mt. Crag are pseudonyms for the Mt. Shasta area.  My novella Vortex returns to Mt. Shasta, and it takes Karen Moffett and Gavin Keoph with it.

Moffett and Keoph first appeared in Night Life, the sequel to Live Girls.  Martin Burgess, a wildly successful horror novelist, has an insatiable curiosity about the paranormal.  He wants to know if the stuff he writes about — ghosts, vampires, werewolves — really exist, and he has a small army of computer geeks and conspiracy theorists seeking out bizarre incidents and esoteric activity for him.  When they inform him of the possibility that vampires are active in Los Angeles, he searches for the right private investigators to hire for the job.  After deciding on Karen Moffett of Los Angeles and Gavin Keoph of San Francisco, he hires them and send them in search of vampires. In Bestial, the sequel to Ravenous, Burgess hires them again to look into the possibility of werewolves in the northern California coastal town of Big Rock.

I wanted to do more with Moffett and Keoph, but instead of having them show up in a sequel to investigate vampires or werewolves, I wanted to do something completely different with them.  I decided to have Burgess send them to Mt. Shasta and see what would happen.  I didn’t have many specifics in mind when I started VORTEX, but the novella has opened a lot of possibilities.

In Mt. Shasta, the investigators meet Penny Jarvis, a young woman with some extraordinary abilities who comes from a secret, government-run school called Aquino Academy, where all of the students have extraordinary abilities.  The first thing I wanted to do after finishing Vortex was to start on a novel about Penny and Aquino Academy.  I was committed to do other things, though, and had to set that idea aside.  But the academy is a fertile subject and I would like to do that sometime soon.  I’m not sure how, but Moffett and Keoph would be involved, as would the new nemesis they encounter in Vortex when a creature named Pyk comes out of —

Whoa.  I’m getting carried away.  I don’t want to spoil the story for you.  My point is that Vortex is going to be a new jumping-off point for Moffett and Keoph.  In it, the possibility of a relationship between the two investigators is introduced, and I will be pursuing that in future stories, as well.

But for now, I will shut up and leave you to read Vortex.  At the moment, it is available for Kindle, but other formats and a paperback edition are coming very soon.  If you enjoy Vortex, I hope you'll post a review and spread the word.

Go with Moffett and Keoph to Mt. Shasta.  Enjoy the scenic beauty.  Have a bite to eat.  But don’t let your guard down.  Something has come out of the mountain . . . and it’s hungry.


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Obligatory Year-End Blog Post

I’m not going write about what a depressing year it’s been.  If you’ve been paying attention, you already know, and if you haven’t, I don’t want to be the one to break it to you.  You can’t turn around these days without getting hit with some bad news.  Instead, I’m going to focus on the things and people that got me to the end of this year intact.

2015 was the year I read some of the work of Clark Asthon Smith thanks to my friend Scott Connors, who has written articles and reviews for a variety of publications, from Weird Tales to Publisher's Weekly.  He co-edited some Smith collections with Ron Hilger, including Star Changes: The Science Fiction of Clark Ashton Smith and The End of the Story, and on his own, like The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, and he is currently writing a biography of Smith.  Scott is the perfect person to introduce one to Smith because he’s so knowledgeable about his work.

As a boy, I could not get into the work of H.P. Lovecraft because he kept telling me that things were too horrible to describe and I kept thinking, Then hire somebody because I want to read about it!  I was 10 and I wanted bloodshed and monsters, preferably in plainer English than Lovecraft, who’s writing, back then, reminded me of the writing of Ellen G. White.  That’s not a good thing.  That changed as I grew older, of course, and learned to appreciate what Lovecraft had created in all those stories.  Clark Ashton Smith was a member of the Lovecraft circle, of course, and their work has a lot in common.  I think I prefer Smith’s prose to Lovecraft’s.  He had a one-of-a-kind imagination and a sense of humor and irony that I enjoy.  I look forward to reading more of his work.

Among the new things I've read this year, Mister White by John C. Foster stands out.  I was a tremendous fan of Robert Ludlum’s spy novels growing up.  I had already cut my teeth on Ian Fleming, but Ludlum did not write about James Bonds, he wrote about mostly regular people who happened to be in the intelligence business or were drawn or stumbled into espionage.  Foster does the same thing, but he combines an espionage thriller with a mystery — half the time, I had no idea what was going on, but in the most entertaining and compelling way possible — and a horror novel.  It’s a tense, unnerving labyrinth and you should pick up a copy when it’s released in April 2016 by Grey Matter Press.

I discovered a lot of streaming services in 2016, like The Grindhouse Channel and TubiTV and Reel Flix.  Browsing through their selections lit up all of my nostalgia neurons.  Unable to go to movie theaters for religious reasons as a boy, I used to cut movie advertisements out of the newspaper, tack them to a corkboard on my bedroom wall over my desk, and gaze at them as I did my homework, wondering what all of those movies were like on the big screen, uncut and without commercial interruptions.  Most of them were horror movies, of course, and a whole lot of them are now available on these streaming services.

One of the great movie ad campaigns of the 1970s was for a double feature, I EAT YOUR SKIN and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD.  The advertisement in my local newspaper, which quickly ended up on my bedroom wall, looked like this:

Along with the short TV spots that seemed to run in every commercial break around the time of release, that newspaper ad had my imagination spinning as I wondered what those movies would be like.  The double feature I concocted in my head as I stared at that newspaper cutout tacked to my corkboard was an epic, bloody nightmare, and I knew it would have to do because there was no chance I would ever see those movies.  Now, thanks to The Grindhouse Channel, I have.

Some things are better imagined than seen.

If you like obscure horror, science fiction, and exploitation movies, I suggest giving these streaming services a look.  If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy scanning the rows and rows of lost cheese treasures and forgotten schlock gems.  As I write this, I have Blood Beach running on TV, a 1980 movie with another memorable ad campaign.  I loved the poster so much, I had it on my wall for years, but I had never seen the movie until now.

At the end of March in 2016, a young man named Philip Ault (you might remember reading about him here) chased our neighbor Megan onto our porch, punched her in the face, and threatened to kill her.  I managed to get her through the door and into the house without letting him in, too.  Spouting a stream of meth-induced gibberish, he began threatening to kill all of us and threw a brick through our kitchen window before trying to climb into the house.  I stabbed him in the arm twice with a decorative fantasy knife, the most available weapon at the time, to keep him from getting inside the house until the police arrived.  They had to tase him twice to get him on the ground.  We received a call from the District Attorney’s office about six weeks ago informing us that Mr. Ault, who was not competent to stand trial, is currently a guest of Napa State Hospital, where efforts are being made to rehabilitate him to a state where he can stand trial.  They have three years to achieve that, and if it cannot be done within that time, Mr. Ault will become a permanent resident of the hospital.  I got a story out of the whole thing called “A Flat and Dreary Monday Night,” which you can read in Cut Corners: Volume 2.

While my health problems have continued with dogged persistence, I work when I’m able and have written a lot of short stories in 2016, including one I’m particularly proud of, “Paranormal Quest,” in the anthology The X-Files: Trust No One, a collection of original X-Files stories by horror and science fiction writers edited by the great Jonathan Maberry.

I'm fortunate to have a lot of friends who have been so good to me over the past year that I want to give them a nod of thanks in no particular order:  Steven and Nancy Spruill, Latrice and Ken Innes, Jason and Sunni Brock, Rhonda Blackmon Walton, Heather Fish, Sharon Turner, William F. Nolan, Cheryl Burcham, Jane Naccarato, Scott Connors, Damian Wild, Richard Chizmar and Brian Freeman and everyone at Cemetery Dance Publications, Emma Pulitzer and everyone at Open Road Integrated Media, Sharon Lawson and Anthony Rivera at Grey Matter Press, Fred and Lois Rose, and I’m probably forgetting someone because that just seems to be how I role in middle age.  My life is a better place with you in it.  I owe everything to my readers, the people who've been reading me for decades, the newcomers who just found me, and everyone in between.  I know from my experience with them online and at conventions that my readership includes some of the kindest, most generous people imaginable.  Thank you for everything.  As always, I'm grateful to Dawn for putting up with me for another year, for sharing her life with me for the last 27 wonderful years.

I hope 2016 brings you everything you need, as well as a bunch of stuff you don’t need but really want.  Stay healthy, take good care of the people in your life, and read more horror fiction.  Happy New Year!