Sunday, September 24, 2017

The self-destruction of the NFL

Today numerous NFL players refused to stand for the National Anthem at various venues, from the U.S. to the UK. (All but one Steeler remained in the locker room during the salute to the flag.)

Fans booed. If Twitter and Facebook are any indication, a widespread boycott of the 2017-2018 season is a real possibility. 

The NFL players claimed to be protesting Donald Trump, or urban police tactics, or…maybe something else this week. Does it matter anymore? Look at your personal social media feed. Everyone—on the right as well as on the left—is angry about something. This is the Age of Outrage. 

This is why we need a few corners of American life to remain free of political grandstanding and self-serving soapboxing. For a long time, spectator sports was one such politics-free area, until a second-string QB named Colin Kaepernick changed all that last season. 

There are a few factors that the posturing players are overlooking. In recent years, the NFL has been plagued with any number of scandals related to the personal conduct of these men: Players have been charged with a laundry list of crimes—from sexual assault and spousal abuse, to first-degree homicide. These are not exactly paragons of virtue. In fact, there is a case to be made that the NFL is little more than an overpaid gaggle of overrated hoodlums. 

I also understand that from a certain political perspective, any act, gesture, or movement that opposes Donald Trump (no matter how indirectly) will be seen as justifiable. Because it’s all about the Resistance!

But the overlap between the Resistance! and football fans is a sliver-sized demographic. Be honest, now: How many latte-sipping, Keith Olberman-watching metrosexuals are also attending football games?

Not too many. Pro football is a red-state obsession. Blue-state left-coasters spend their Sunday afternoons doing things like….watching performances of Hamilton on Broadway, and attending Jonathan Franzen book signings. Whatever they’re doing, the leftwing crowd is probably not mixing with the unwashed hoi polloi at the local football stadium. 

Even before the current controversy, attendance at NFL games was down, as were the television ratings. This is the last thing that the game needed. The prima donnas of the gridiron may yet become victims of their own hubris. 

Art, talent, nature, nurture

I’ve recently seen some online discussions regarding a controversial topic. (No, the controversy has nothing to do with who should use which bathroom, or the current occupant of the White House.) 

The controversy is:  Are great (or merely good) writers, musicians, and other creative artists “made” or “born”? 

Is it nature—or nurture? Training—or talent?

Since “talent” is a somewhat highfalutin word, for the purposes of our discussion here, let’s replace “talent” with the word “predisposition”. Or “inclination”…or even “aptitude”.

I’m also going to take you on a segue of a sports analogy. And yes, I’m going to talk about my own experiences. (This is my blog, after all, right?)

When I was a freshman in high school I went out for football. My school had a freshman team, which accepted more or less anyone who came to practice regularly. (In the time and place in which I grew up, almost no one had access to football before high school. Therefore, the freshman football team was regarded as something of an experimental venue. The school’s program didn’t start actively cutting players until the sophomore (reserve) level.)

Despite these extremely lax standards, my freshman football season was distinguished only by its mediocrity. I was technically a right tackle, but it would be more accurate to say that I was a second-string benchwarmer.

I don’t blame anyone for this. The plain truth is that I simply didn’t “get” football. To begin with, I have never been well-suited to team-based activities (big surprise, me being a writer and all). Also, while I can be tenacious enough, I lack the instantaneous aggression-on-command which is so essential to a competent football player.

Bottom line: I had absolutely no predisposition toward football.

The following year, however, I found an athletic activity that I was better suited for. I started running on my own in order to lose excess weight. This I accomplished. (I lost more than 80 pounds that year, but that’s another story for another time.) 

I also found that I had an aptitude for running. After I had been running independently for a year, I was giving the kids on the school’s track team a run for their money. My junior year, I went out for track, and I became a bonafide athlete, versus a me-too benchwarmer. 

Running is almost always an individual sport, with the exception of a few relay events. Distance running, I found, was well suited to my slow-burn tenacity, versus the explosive but momentary aggression of the football player.

I enjoyed a decent career as a high school distance runner. I competed in the state championship my senior year. I set school records in the mile and the two-mile that remained school records for almost a decade after my graduation.

But I never would have been anything but a lousy football player.

Since were talking about art, and not sports, let’s move on to artistic endeavors.

I’ve always been a fan of rock music. When I was thirteen, I decided that this meant I should become the lead guitarist in a rock band. My parents, being reasonably indulgent of my adolescent whims, allowed me to take guitar lessons.

I persisted with the guitar for a bit less than two years. Why did I give it up? It was apparent to me (and everyone else) that I had no real musical talent.

I learned to play the notes and the chords. To this day, thirty-five years later, I could show you how to play all the different guitar chords—A, B, C, D, E, F, G. I have a basic understanding of how instrumental music “works”.

But to be really good at music, you must have an innate sense of musical timing. It’s no coincidence that many musical prodigies are also mathematical prodigies. 

This was where I had a problem. I was a very good musician—one chord and one note at a time. But the gaps in between the notes and the chords completely confounded me.

It was a little after this that I re-explored an artistic pursuit that had interested me as a child: writing fiction.

I was one of those kids who was always reading, who was naturally drawn to books. I had some encouragement from my mother in this area, but she didn't have to push me very hard. 

When I was nine years old, I started writing my own stories. 

Nobody told me to do this; and I had no financial incentive for writing at that time. (This was 1977, a few years before Amazon or Kindle publishing.) I wrote purely for my own amusement, because it occurred to me to do so.

Let’s get back to that loaded word, “talent”. I’m not going to declare that I am the world’s most talented author, or even that I have any talent. I am going to acknowledge, for the purposes of our discussion here, that I have an aptitude for writing and storytelling. I am naturally inclined to do so. 

Could I have ever become a good musician? Let me play “Stairway to Heaven” for you, and I’ll let you decide.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Novel of the week: TERMINATION MAN

For those of you who enjoyed my recently published corporate conspiracy thriller, THE EAVESDROPPER, allow me to introduce my earlier high-crimes-in-the-boardroom novel, TERMINATION MAN:

Get it on Amazon Kindle for $0.99 through September 23rd

TERMINATION MAN is on sale for just $0.99 through September 23rd! That's almost free!

The Termination Man is a hotshot corporate consultant who will use any trick to eliminate the Fortune 500’s unwanted, problem employees. A fast-paced, intelligent workplace thriller that will keep you guessing until the last page!

Amazon Description:

A long forgotten double murder of two young women in Ohio. A struggling corporation in turmoil. Two powerful men, two bitter rivals, each one hiding his own secrets. One driven by lust and rage, the other driven by a conflicted sense of right and wrong. 


“The novel that takes an unflinching look at the dark underside of the 21st century workplace.”

CRAIG WALKER is a hotshot young MBA with his own consulting firm. He’s handsome, rich, and in demand. His Fortune 500 clients—the most powerful men and women in industry—call him “The Termination Man.”

Craig Walker is no ordinary management consultant. He’s a spook, a workplace spy. Assuming false identities, Craig works undercover, building the evidence that will allow his corporate clients to terminate unwanted employees without legal repercussions. His targets are the troublemakers, the agitators, the employees whom management believes are no longer “good fits” for their hyper-competitive organizations.  

Craig Walker believes that he serves the cause of economic efficiency, and in a way, the greater good. Most of his targets don’t like their jobs anyway. In a free market, “a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes an employee needs to leave a bad a situation.”

SHAWN MYERS is a manager at TP Automotive, a global giant in the automotive industry. Shawn struggles to control his lust and rage, and to escape a hideous past that might catch up with him at any moment. His forbidden desire for a girl young enough to be his daughter threatens to drive him over the edge.

When TP Automotive hires the Termination Man to remove two innocent employees from its payroll, Craig Walker is forced to reexamine his notions of justice and morality. But these questions are soon overwhelmed by the dangers that he faces from the TP Automotive management team. After Shawn Myers commits a heinous act in Craig’s presence, the Termination Man discovers that his new clients will resort to any means in order to protect one of their own.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: "The Termination Man goes to work..."

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.

My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a "Union Yes" baseball cap.

I certainly didn't look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.

I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named "Ben" might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn't Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.

I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin's picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin's evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.

The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:

Friday, September 15, 2017

Stephen King, and the weird sex scene in “It”

I haven't read It in many decades, but in light of the recent It movie release, I decided to take a gander at some reader reviews that have come out over the last few years.

Stephen King’s books are popular—and not without reason. King captivated me as a reader in 1984, when I was a teenager. At that point in my life, there was no way I was going to read any literature that was even remotely challenging. But Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), a novel about vampires taking over a small town in rural Maine? Yeah, I was all about that. 

Many readers have felt—and continue to feel—the same way. 

That said, there are some idiosyncratic aspects of It, King’s mammoth 1986 novel (dubbed his magnum opus at the time) that draw justifiable criticism. Here is an excerpt from a critical review found on Goodreads:

“And, the scene which blew me away and pretty much made me feel I had wasted time getting that far in: a gang-bang consisting of nothing but 11 and 12-year-olds. What the F***? And when I say "gang bang" I mean it--six boys banging the girl back-to-back. Only abnormal people do not raise an eyebrow at this scene and try to defend it as being "natural" and "normal." It's neither and most decent people would be bothered by this segment.”

I read It in September 1986, shortly after the book was first published. (I once owned one of the original hardcover editions, now lost to time and multiple changes of residence.) I was only eighteen years old then, a freshman in college. I was not that much older than the preteen protagonists in the story. 

Nevertheless, that above-described sex scene struck me as bizarre, even then. You don’t have to be well into middle age (as I am now) to read a scene like that and say, “Whoa, Nelly, something’s a little awry here.” 

None of the books King had published before It had contained anything quite like this. And It was chock-full of other oddities as well. (Read the full text of the Goodreads review I cited.) The novel definitely rambles in places; and the story doesn't quite support the massive length. 

As a new reader of It thirty-odd years ago, I felt let down. Every Stephen King novel up to It was a tightly constructed, finely tuned work of art. This was true of Carrie (1974)—the shortest of his early novels—as well as his post-apocalyptic epic, The Stand (1978), which weighed in at over one thousand pages.

What accounts for the shift? King has been open about his substance abuse issues during the 1980s. This may have been a factor. Minimal editorial oversight likely also played a role. By 1986, Stephen King had become a household name, a celebrity author. (In October, 1986, King was featured on the cover of Time magazine, no less.) It was sometime around 1986 that King quipped that he could publish his grocery list, and the document would sell a million copies. This claim wasn’t—and isn’t—that far from the truth. Can you blame an editor for assuming that the King new best? Perhaps not. 

But the finished product nevertheless suffered. Prior to reading It, Stephen King was my favorite novelist, bar none. It was the novel whereby Stephen King started to “lose” me as a reader. 

Don’t get me wrong: I continued to read his novels and short story collections. (I still read them.) But the sense of awe that his early novels gave me had gone. 

Should you read It, if you haven't already? I would say: yes. Despite its many flaws, It is still a worthwhile book, and probably a lot more entertaining than the most recent offering from Jonathan Franzen. 

But if you’re one of those rare fiction readers who hasn’t yet sampled Stephen King, I would start with one of his earlier titles—The Shining, Carrie, Pet Sematary, Cujo, etc. 

You’ll be far more impressed with the books that King wrote before It…and you won’t have to read scenes containing orgies among 12-year-olds.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Today's feature book is ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT.

A college student-filmmaker takes a nighttime walk down the most haunted road in Ohio. 

Experience eleven miles of nerve-jangling supernatural terror--as he faces malevolent spirits and horrifying entities at every turn.

Amazon description:

Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. 

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. 

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.


I live in southern Ohio, where there is no shortage of reputedly haunted roads, and roads that are the sources of various urban legends.

ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT is the ultimate haunted road tale: Herein you'll find demons that disguise themselves as little girls, hellhounds, and an undead witch that haunts a covered bridge.

You'll also encounter trees and scarecrows that come to life, and a red-eyed creature that hovers near the edge of the woods.

I'll admit it: I had fun packing the monsters and urban legends into this novel.

I also enjoyed the characters: Jason Kelley is a young man who wants to achieve his dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. But to claim his next big break, he has to walk down eleven miles of the most terrifying two-lane highway in Ohio, the so-called Shaman's Highway.

Even before the horror begins, Jason already has a lot on his mind: He has to sort out what he will do about his dysfunctional but clingy parents, and the young woman who has captured his heart but demands more than he is (perhaps) capable of giving.

Oh, and during his walk down the Shaman's Highway, he has an unexpected encounter with another young man who may turn out to be just as dangerous as the supernatural threats.


Chapter 10 Excerpt: "Eyes at Honeysuckle Pond":

The total area of the pond would have perhaps equaled a football field, though its shape was irregular, roughly that of a lemon wedge. At various points along the bank there were little fork-shaped wooden stands where customers could place their cane poles and graphite and carbon fiber rods.

Jason guessed that the pond had closed at dusk. This would mean that people had been fishing here less than two hours ago. In the darkness, however, the pond seemed lonelier than that, as if no humans had walked along these banks for a long, long time.

Jason added these sentiments to his narration. "Any place on Shaman's Highway is a lonely place after dark," he noted. "Even a public fishing pond." In the nearest corner of the pond, he could see lily pads and tangled mats of algae that were encroaching on the water, along with some clumps of cattails. The pond gave off its own odor: a green, gamey smell that suggested this would be an active breeding site for mosquitoes and aquatic gnats. As he walked closer to the water's edge, he heard the plunk! of a bullfrog taking a dive into the water.

He scanned the near bank of the pond with the camcorder, taking in the shoreline's green and black night-vision-enhanced shapes and adding a few more bits of narration. He pushed the camcorder's pause button and lowered it. What more could you say or record about Honeysuckle Pond after dark?

A moving flash of white caught his attention in the glow of the moonlight. Then another, and another. His heart accelerated momentarily, until he realized that it was a small gaggle of geese. There were four birds in total. These specimens were not the black-necked Canadian geese. These were the white-feathered variety; and their snow-colored plumage seemed to be made for a moonlit night. Jason marveled that he had not noticed them sooner.

The geese were swimming around in the middle of the pond, in the spot that would be the farthest from any of the surrounding banks. The birds were moving in a tight, disciplined circle (as disciplined as geese could be, anyway). From the shoreline, Jason could hear the sounds of them gently paddling through the still water.

He raised the camcorder and began recording again. The birds were green and far less impressive in the night vision.

"It seems like I'm not alone here," Jason said. He made an effort to make his voice sound eerie and suggestive, as Simon Rose and his ghost-hunting underlings sometimes did when narrating footage. But what was scary about geese?

Nothing scary, but strange: To the best of Jason's knowledge, waterfowl weren't nocturnal. Wouldn't the geese ordinarily be nesting on the bank during the night?

Unless they were afraid of something on the bank.

The idea came to him unbidden; and he immediately dismissed it as his imagination on overdrive yet once again. But then he reconsidered: There were plenty of perfectly mundane and natural creatures that could spook geese. It didn't have to be something supernatural. The geese might have been made restless by a raccoon or a stray dog. There might even be lynx or coyotes in these woods. Both of the latter were indigenous to Ohio, Jason believed.

Jason looked away from the geese, abruptly lowering the camcorder. In the woods behind the pond, something had moved in the amorphous mass of trees. And whatever this was, it was not likely one of the tiny animals that he had heard earlier. Nor had the sounds been made by a raccoon or a bobcat. This was something big. Beyond the initial tree line, the woods melted into pockets of impenetrable darkness.

About seven feet off the ground, Jason saw--or thought he saw--a pair of red eyes flash briefly among the trees. The eyes disappeared. Then they flashed again.

He felt his legs turn to jelly.

Jason felt the impulse to run. But no--he would not allow himself to be scared away again.

You're here to do a job, dammit. Get control of yourself. 

The graveyard had been nothing more than an old cemetery made spooky by its isolation and the moonlight. This was something else entirely:  Since setting out along the Shaman's Highway, this was his first sighting of something that might be fairly called a phenomenon. The eyes in the trees were not his imagination; and there was no natural explanation for them.

He held the camcorder up to his shoulder and aimed it in the direction of the forest. Through the camcorder's eyepiece, there was not much that he could make out: little more than an indistinguishable mass of trees and blank darkness.

Yet he had seen something--something that had briefly shown itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. And now that something had withdrawn--but perhaps not completely. And Jason faced a question:

Will you pursue it into those woods--whatever is attached to that pair of red eyes? 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Readers are liking OUR HOUSE

A young couple, currently residing in an apartment, buys a house in the suburbs. Their first home purchase, the American dream.

But the previous owner of the house retains an obsession with the home. The house has a dark secret.

This is the premise of OUR HOUSE. There are no supernatural elements in this novel. No inhuman monsters. There are no Islamic terrorists. 

OUR HOUSE is, rather, a thriller novel about the evils that lie buried in normal surroundings—spawned by bad decisions, and ordinary human emotions gone awry.

I had written this novel a few years ago, and done little to promote it at the time. I recently ran some promotions on the book, and as a result, it is found its way onto thousands of Kindles.

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with a few exceptions. 

I would be the first to admit that OUR HOUSE is a quirky novel, somewhat difficult to classify. The villains are not what you would usually find in a thriller. The antagonistic team consists of a middle-aged woman with potentially homicidal tendencies, and her two young adult children, who are equally warped.

The novel is, interestingly enough, based on a true story that was told to me shortly before I began the book. 

There are, of course, lots of embellishments in the novel that finally arose from the real-life story. But aren’t there always? 

A young family. A dream house with a psychotic ex-owner and a horrible secret. A claustrophobic suburban thriller that will keep you guessing!

Chapter 18 Excerpt: "A visitor in the night":

Jennifer awoke to the sound of the doorbell. She had been in the middle of a deep sleep; and the bell rang several times before she fully grasped its significance. She sat up in bed, a sudden rush of adrenaline banishing her sleepiness. She looked at the clock beside the bed: 2:49 a.m.

She didn't turn on any additional lights, not even one of the lights in the bedroom. She wanted to have the element of surprise on her side. Sliding into the slippers she kept beside the bed, she steeled herself for the confrontation that was likely coming. Then she grabbed her robe from one of the bedposts.

Maybe you shouldn't go downstairs, she thought. It might be better to call the Mydale Police Department again. Let them handle it.

Ding-dong! Ding-dong! Ding-dong! The ringing was becoming more persistent now.

No. It was now clear that the cat had been no random sick prank. The person on the front porch was someone she knew--and the person could only be either Jim Lindsay or Deborah Vennekamp. Whichever one it was, her tormentor was trying to unnerve her.

Before going downstairs, she stopped by Connor's room. (There was no hurry--the person at the front door didn't seem to be going away.) Her son shifted in his bedclothes and rolled over. Luckily, Connor was a sound sleeper. She closed the door of his bedroom. Hopefully, he would sleep through whatever was about to happen.

She walked carefully down the stairs. An indistinct flash of movement appeared in one of the windows on the right side of the front door. By the time she reached the first-floor foyer, the ringing had stopped.

Turning the doorknob with one hand, and releasing the deadbolt lock with the other, she had second thoughts: It might be a serial killer. It might be a rapist.

It wasn't a serial killer or a rapist. It was either Deborah or Jim, and either one of those two would quickly retreat if resolutely confronted.

Jennifer flung the door open. Whoever had rung the doorbell had run away--but Jennifer suspected that he or she had not run far. Her first instinct was to look immediately to her right and left. There were shrubs in both directions, but they were insufficient cover for a full grown adult of either sex. And none of the shrubs showed any sign of movement.

She glanced down and noticed what had been left for her: not a dead cat this time, but words scrawled in chalk on the surface of the porch: "GET OUT!"

"Nice," she said aloud, doing her best to maintain a steady voice. The person--either Deborah or Jim--would be out there somewhere: where she could not easily see them, but still within earshot. Perhaps she could draw the perpetrator out, goad him or her into the open.

"That's really brave: You ring my doorbell and you run away. You leave dead animals and stupid messages on my porch. Well, I want you to know that I'm not afraid of you. I also want you to know that I know who you are. And unless you stop this now, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. So why don't you just stop all this?"

Silence. In the still of this early morning hour, the front yard took on an eerie appearance, even with the multiple outside floodlights. The trees and shrubs further out in the yard were impenetrable shadows. The dew glistened on the grass, where more shadows played.

"Do you hear me?" she said. Every hair on her body seemed to be standing up now, but she did not care. It was time for this to stop.

There was a rustling in one of the shrubs toward the far edge of the front yard. That area was beyond the full intensity of the floodlights, but there was enough illumination for her eyes to detect traces of movement.

"Who's there?" she called out. When the unseen intruder refused to answer, she was torn between two competing convictions. First there was the belief that she had made a mistake, confronting the intruder alone like this. That was followed by anger: This was nothing more than an elaborate charade concocted by either Deborah Vennekamp or Jim Lindsay, neither of whom intimidated her in real life.

"I have a gun," she said. But this bluff did not, she knew, sound convincing. She was backlit by the front porch lights, and both of her hands would be visible. If she truly had a gun, she would have brandished it by now.

There was more movement, and then a figure stepped out of the shadows. Jennifer squinted in the poor light, expecting to see the face of one of her two known tormentors.

What she saw instead did not resemble a person at all. She gasped, and shrank back toward the still open front doorway.

Her first association was the Minotaur of ancient Greek mythology. Two massive horns emerged from the darkness, and below them the snout of a bull, its mouth contorted in an unnatural grimace. All of this was atop a human frame, though that frame was clad in a single dark, flowing robe that obscured any indication of age or gender. The bull's head also made it difficult for her to accurately assess its height.

She now saw that this, too, was an elaborately structured illusion: It was not a Minotaur at all--but a person clad in a robe and a realistic mask.

"Who are you?" she shouted.

The bull's head swung slowly from side to side, its gaping mouth unwavering. The message was clear: The person beneath the mask was not going to be tricked into self-identification.

What followed was a pregnant moment, as Jennifer watched the person in the bull mask, and the other party presumably watched her, through eyes that were hidden beneath the mask.

Then the figure reached into the robe and withdrew a cylindrical object. Jennifer noticed that the person was wearing gloves, though her attention was focused on the object in his/her right hand.

A second later the object came hurtling toward her. The throw had come without any warning. Jennifer dodged to one side, and was aware of the sound of breaking glass and a few drops of wetness on the bare skin of her neck...

Monday, September 11, 2017

On that Stephen King boycott

Just in case you weren’t aware, Stephen King really, really doesn’t like Donald Trump, and he’s made no bones about expressing his opinions (mostly on Twitter, but elsewhere, too). 

Donald Trump has never been known to let an insult go unanswered. According to Stephen King, President Trump has blocked him on Twitter. 

So Stephen King retaliated—with a public statement to the effect that Donald Trump would not be welcome at showings of IT, the remade movie version of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. (How Stephen King intended to enforce this ban was unclear.)

The matter didn't end there, of course. (Does anyone ever just let a subject drop, nowadays?) A group of Donald Trump supporters have responded by calling for a boycott not only of IT—but of all Stephen King’s books and movies. The boycott has achieved questionable success at the time of this writing, but that could always change.

Are you with me so far? Yes, this is the sort of tragicomic absurdity that only the twenty-first century could provide.

Let’s begin with Stephen King. I’ve been following Stephen King since 1984, when he had already achieved a measure of fame, but had not yet been catapulted to the megastar bestselling writer-emeritus status that defines him today.

Stephen King has never been particularly shy about his politics; and his politics have always leaned sharply to the left. Stephen King is a product of the 1960s student revolts; and his political statements are typically the boilerplate of that era, updated slightly to fit modern times.

But in the 1980s, Stephen King seldom allowed his politics to stand in the way of his integrity as a writer. Back in the Reagan era, he would occasionally make a passing statement in an interview about his displeasure with the GOP. But I emphasize: a passing statement. There were a few political biases in his short stories and novels; but these were no more than average, and mostly forgivable.

The 21st-century version of Stephen King is a different writer, entirely. And this notable shift didn’t begin with the Trump administration—just in case you’re inclined to blame the 45th President for King’s aberrations. King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a thinly veiled diatribe against Republicans, social conservatives, and evangelical Christians. The villains in Under the Dome are cardboard cutouts, paranoid projections of everything that Stephen King imagines red-state Americans to be. The novel represents a sad decline for the genius who once penned The Stand (1978), The Shining (1977), and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975).

And the sad ironies don’t stop there. 

I recall reading IT in 1986, when the book was first released. There is a scene in which one of the main characters, William "Bill" Denbrough, is harassed by a creative writing instructor who wants him to weave a political message into every piece of his writing. Denbrough rebels, with the observation that, “Politics always change. Stories never do.” A story should just be a story. 

Think about that one for a moment: Politics always change, stories never do. 

I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman at the time, and just beginning to consider the intersections between politics, literature, and popular culture. Nevertheless, the quote had a profound impact on me, and it has shaped my public conduct as I have begun writing and publishing fiction.  

I don’t believe that fiction writers necessarily need to hide their political views. There is a point, however, when the politically zealous fiction writer reaches a crossroads. At that point, it is necessary to make a choice: Is the writer primarily a storyteller, or is the writer primarily a political activist who occasionally dabbles in writing fiction? 

Stephen King, we might argue, has long since chosen to become the latter. Although he still produces the occasional page-turner, the quality of his writing has declined significantly since I first began reading him. Most of his really good novels were published in the last century. Nowadays, he is just as likely to make the news for his political activism as for his fiction.

But what about Donald Trump? We mustn’t let him off the hook, either. Donald Trump is, perhaps, our first thoroughly 21st-century president in the way he conducts himself. Like the Internet itself, Trump favors the broad brush over subtlety, outlandish bombast over carefully worded analysis. 

Many of Trump’s frothing opponents are mildly deranged. (Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, has recently been documented by the American Psychological Association as a bonafide—but hopefully temporary—mental disorder.) That said, there is plenty of room to criticize the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

And, of course, Trump has an addiction to Twitter—which he should have discarded when he left Manhattan for the White House. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s policy positions, his style as chief executive leaves much to be desired.

I might close with a few predictions about the boycott of IT. Like the simplistic and caustic Internet meme, the Internet-based boycott has become yet another weapon in our endlessly weaponized political debates. 

Liberals routinely boycott every institution that veers even slightly away from their doctrinaire narratives on the politics of race, sexual orientation, and gender. (Recall the Chick-fil-A boycott of a few years ago, after the CEO of the company expressed a personal adherence to traditional norms, where the institution of marriage was concerned.) 

Conservatives, of late, have taken to boycotting institutions that impose draconian standards of political correctness. (There is presently a movement afoot to boycott Google, which takes a Stalinesque approach to any political discussion involving race, sexual orientation, or gender.)

And, of course, Trump supporters now regularly boycott celebrities who go out of their way to trash the president. This is how Stephen King found himself the target of this present boycott.

The Stephen King boycott may have a marginal effect over the long haul. There is a cumulative factor at work here. Stephen King has gone out of his way in recent years to become the celebrity writer version of that obnoxious cocktail party guest who won’t shut up about his politics. Stephen King no longer regards himself as merely a bestselling writer, but as a bestselling writer emeritus. This makes him an all-around expert on all the affairs of the world. As noted above, King’s political obsessions have tainted his writing for well over a decade. A lot of people were aware of his shenanigans before the recent brouhaha. 

But every boycott produces a counter-boycott. After leftwing activists announced their boycott of that nefarious chicken restaurant, conservatives made the support of Chick-fil-A a political cause célèbre. For several weeks, the Chick-fil-A near my house (in semi-rural southern Ohio) was standing-room only. The line at the drive-through was always ten to twelve cars long. On balance, Chik-fil-A probably made money from the boycott.

The same might turn out to be true for Stephen King. Without the boycott, IT is just another story that has been around for 30 years, in one form or another. Like I said, I read the book as an 18-year-old college freshman; and I’m now pushing fifty. (IT has already been adapted for the screen, too—in the form of a 1990 TV miniseries.) 

But a certain percentage of the population will flock to the theaters if the movie can be framed as a strike against Donald Trump. Because some people, in our current environment, absolutely live for that sort of thing. 

But Stephen King probably doesn't care all that much. Not really. He already has a net worth of $400 million. He isn't going to lose any sleep if a few million Trump supporters stay home from the cinema premiere of IT. Attention spans are perilously short nowadays. King figures he’ll get their money a few years down the road in DVD sales, when they’ve moved on to something else. 

So don’t look for the Stephen King boycott to have any measurable effect on Stephen King’s public behavior. King is going to continue shooting his mouth off on Twitter and anywhere else he can. As will Donald Trump. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The plot must justify the length

I'm a big fan of gangster movies. (I've seen all the Godfather movies multiple times.) At least two of my novels, The Eavesdropper and Blood Flats, have organized criminal elements.

I was expecting to like Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Directed by Sergio Leone, the movie explores the lives of a group of (fictional) Jewish New York gangsters during the first half of the twentieth century. 

The movie also stars James Woods and Robert De Niro. I assumed that the combination of such talent would result in a great movie.

I assumed incorrectly. Once Upon a Time in America is a four-hour film that drags on and on, jumping across various storylines and subplots. 

The characters are not very likable, even if their despicable actions might be partially justified by their surroundings and circumstances. There are no real heroes—in the classic sense—in this movie.

I miss many aspects of life in the 1980s. I’m sad to say, however, that the 1980s was not a great era in American film. Once Upon a Time in America only adds to the decade’s dismal cinematic legacy.

If a director is going to make a four-hour movie, then the plot had better be tight, compelling, and fully deserving of four hours of the viewer’s time. Once Upon a Time in America simply doesn't rise to that standard.

Something wicked

In preparation for a paranormal thriller I'm working on, I recently read Something Wicked: a Ghost Hunter Explores Negative Entities, by Debi Chestnut. 

The book received a lot a of negative reviews on Goodreads, and these may have been overly harsh. While there were some stylistic issues with the book (Ms. Chestnut has a habit of repeating herself), the information provided was nevertheless valuable.

My only quibble is the wide variety of conditions and behaviors that Ms. Chestnut puts forth as factors leading to potential demonic possession. These include, for example, unkept and messy surroundings. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not defending bad housekeeping; but I have to honestly wonder if we should set the bar that low. She also cites a study indicating that as much as 30% of the population might be affected by negative spiritual influences. 

I am reminded of this quote from C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

The idea being that we then begin to see demonic influences (or other negative spiritual forces) in every corner of life. This is something that we should avoid. 

I have to side with Lewis in these matters: Supernatural causation should be invoked sparingly, and only after every other more mundane potential cause has been exhausted. (Let us not forget Occam's Razor.) 

This is especially true where the most terrifying form of supernatural causation is involved: demonic influence and/or possession. 

That said, I found Ms. Chestnut's book informative, if a bit uneven. There aren't many books available on these matters, and hers is probably among the best.