Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Brief Review of Two Zombie Movies.

I watched two zombie movies last week. Yeah. Me. The guy who learned to hate zombie movies, stories, and novels. But I was bored and I caved to peer pressure. (What? I have zombie pals? In a manner of speaking, yes.)

Generally these days I absolutely loathe all things zombie. Such books and movies have come to appeal to racists, nationalists, and gun-crazed neo-Nazis. It almost makes me wish I'd never written any zombie fiction at all. That said, there were two recent-ish zombie movies that a lot of people kept claiming were good and worth watching, and I caved to the pressure.

The first one I tried to watch was THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I'd been told it was a "new take" on the zombie trope. It was not. It sucked Holy Roman Ass. It had enough plot holes to drive an Armata tank through. Also, it had what may be the single most racist scene I have ever witnessed in a zombie movie; and brother believe me that was not easy to do. Avoid it. Piece of utter shit. That's all I'm going to say about that one.

The second film was TRAIN TO BUSAN. Everyone and his cousins had been telling me how good this movie is. But, you know--zombies. So I avoided it. Then on my son's birthday we were hanging out at his house and he told me that it really was good and we should watch it on streaming video. So we did.

Holy Hell! What a great movie! It's a Korean film, subtitled in English. (I hope they never dub it.) It's a great action movie with some truly wonderful characters packed into a two-hour running time. I mean...damn...very well rounded characters.

Not only is it a great action flick, it also has a dynamite load of subversive social and political messages going on. For one thing, I never expected a movie from South Korea to deliver such a powerful anti-capitalist message, but this one does; and effectively. The villains of the movie are personified in the two businessmen, one of whom evolves over the course of the movie, the other of whom only grows more detestable. I liked the fact that the two great heroic characters are working class--one a hulking weight-lifter of a man (played by Ma Dong-seok) who is a classic heroic figure, and who plays the part with a lot of humor (hard to do in a zombie movie). The other is described simply as a nameless "Homeless Man" skilfully rendered by Choi Gwi-hwa.

For a zombie film it is absent of much in the way of gore. There is blood, for sure, but no guts, really. One reason for this is that the transition from human to zombie takes place most of the time in a matter of seconds. And the purpose of the zombies seems to be to infect non-carriers rather than consuming them. The zombies are also the super-fast sort rather than the plodding Romero zombies.

At any rate, I can highly recommend this one, even if you're not a zombie fan (which I am not).
Here are my favorite characters from the movie.

Ma Dong-seok who is, I was surprised to learn, an American. He was my favorite character in the film. He played the part with a lot of humor and likability.

Kim Eui-sung as the vile, unrepentant, selfish capitalist sack of shit. It's not easy to play a role and to create a person who is completely corrupt and hateful. He does it with great skill. He's like a cockroach that won't die.

Choi Gwi-hwa as the "Homeless Man". Another wonderful performance. Andy and I both figured the actor for being Japanese, but apparently he's Korean. I admired how he played the this role carefully and resourcefully. Ultimately one of the most heroic roles in the movie.

And Yoo Gong as the privileged money manipulator who finds over the course of the film that he still has a soul.

Yeah, I know. Late to the party. But give it a view.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Too Many Humans!

To put it mildly, I don't like crowds. All of my life, places like rodeos, fairs, circuses, festivals, parades, marches, zoos, amusement parks...pretty much any kind of gatherings over a dozen people give me the creeps. I do like state parks and National Parks, because while the areas around the roads and parking lots can be crowded, I know that all I have to do is hike half a mile from the main arteries and I will find solitude and silence and peace.

Usually.


Carole and I had decided to drive up to Roan Mountain where some of the best natural rhododendron gardens on the planet can be found. I've lived here in North Carolina for more than three decades and every year when the flowers are at their peak I have missed the show. I can't say why. So, this year we decided to drive up to Roan on Saturday, June 17 to see the flowers in what we'd been told were their peak.

We got to the area about 9:30 in the morning and immediately hit a traffic jam in Elk Park, TN. Why? Because the area was holding a RHODODENDRON FESTIVAL over the weekend. And we're not talking about a few hundred people. No. Tens of thousands had arrived as a mass to see the flowers and to attend a craft fair being held in Roan Mountain State Park. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was maddening stop and go as we approached the craft fair near the state park office.

After we passed the craft show, traffic opened up and got light the final ten miles to the trail head we wanted to use. Our plan was to park in Carvers Gap and hike a few miles up the Appalachian Trail to Grassy Ridge Bald where the best of the flowers were said to bloom.

Uh-uh. Wasn't going to happen.

Carvers Gap had become a mass traffic jam. The closest spot to park was about a mile either side of the Appalachian Trail. So a round trip distance of two miles would be added to any hike, and Carole was not up to that ridiculous shit. Truth to tell, even if I'd been alone I wouldn't have done it. The Appalachian Trail was like a human freeway. Hundreds of people were moving in a steady line headed for the ridges to see the rhododendron.

Shit.

We stopped at a road block and spoke to a ranger and he suggested that we might be able to park and view the rhododendron at the old Cloudland Hotel site up on Roan High Knob. So we did this, only to find that the crowds were almost as bad there. The parking lots were almost full, but we found a spot to leave the car and began to hike the short loop trails near the summit. Only to find that they, too, were uncomfortably packed with humans. We often had to quite actually wait in line to walk past knots of people clogging the trail!

Yeah. It was about as close to a nightmare for me as it gets. Here I find myself in a place of natural beauty, but it's so crowded with goddamned people that I almost can't breathe.

With no other option, we chose to leave the area and head over to the Blue Ridge Parkway to hit Mount Mitchell State Park. Carole had not been there in a while and I had not made any backup plans for secondary hikes. Yes, I should have done a little more research, but I hadn't done that. If I'd known, we could have gone hiking somewhere else that was not being used by tens of thousands of people for a damned rhododendron festival.

We ended up on Mount Mitchell in alternating passing clouds and mild rain showers. Fortunately, the weather was good for some atmospheric photos (59 degrees!) and we ended up having a decent time, stopping to grill burgers and hot dogs at a picnic area. All in all, we did manage to salvage the day, which is a good thing. You know what they say: a bad day in the mountains is better than the best day in town.

Carole hiking at the old Cloudland Hotel location. Only two other humans visible in this shot, which amazes me. I got lucky and was able to avoid the several hundred others wandering around stinking up the joint.

I have to say, the flowers were gorgeous and most of them were either in, or approaching, full bloom.

This is the kind of crowds that make my skin crawl when I go to the mountains.


We found a nice picnic area and grilled out.

Lighter hued rhododendrons at lower altitudes.

Lots of flame azalea, also.

And plenty of Mountain laurel were still in full bloom, too!

The modern handicap accessible lookout on the summit of Mount Mitchell. A couple was sitting on Elisha Mitchell's grave (he's buried on the summit) having a good ol' time, I reckon.

Clingman's Peak from the summit of Mount Mitchell.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Goodreads Promotion Fail.

As an author I am a member of Goodreads. It's a fairly interesting site for readers and authors.

They have a promotions campaign where you can generate interest in your books by offering a sweepstakes where you give away a copy of one (or more) of your books. I figured it was a good way to get a copy of one of my novels into the hands of a reader who would--you know--actually READ the book and hopefully post a positive review, since the copy is, in essence, a gift. Quid pro quo, as they say.

I offered up my book WORKING CLASS HERO and, as chance would have it, a Charlotte resident won the copy. As the book is set in Charlotte, I thought that was cool and personalized and autographed the copy for the winner. I mailed it off.

A few days later I saw that there was a notice of sale of a copy of my book as "new" listed at Amazon.com. Not "like new", but "new". How could anyone undercut the publisher, since the print copies are POD? I need not have wondered, for the copy being offered as "new" was the personalized and autographed copy I had sent to the basta...I mean winner of the Goodreads contest. One Mr. Hall of Charlotte, NC who runs a bookstore on Amazon.com.

So, this wonderful jackass had me send him a copy of my book so that he could undercut my publisher. He never intended to read it. Of course the book that he is selling as "new" is not. It has been written on quite extensively in pen and ink (by me). And if he did actually read it, again...it's not new.

What a sack of shit.

I won't be doing any more of those giveaways.



WORKING CLASS HERO! By James Robert Smith.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Kayaking Scares the Birds.

I went kayaking again today. This time I headed toward a wilder side of Mountain Island lake where there are fewer homes and also where the Cowan Ford Wildlife Refuge is located. Not a lot of people visit the Refuge. Parts of it are off limits to humans, and no hunting is allowed. So the animals are more skittish and shy than in places where they are accustomed to people.

Today almost all of the birds I encountered did not like me around and let me know it. They all complained loudly when I'd come into view or close proximity. Some of them did not tolerate my presence and took wing and left me sitting there alone. Even the Canada geese at the refuge were shy--and the geese around here are not normally known for being afraid of people. But these were. Instead of flying away they just went ashore and vanished into the forest, taking their goslings with them.

Once again I saw an osprey and was not able to photograph it. It, too, headed off and left me fumbling with my lenses as it vanished.

Shy critters!

This fellow is THE biggest Great blue heron I have ever seen! He was enormous! Also, he gave me the stink-eye and took off!

He croaked at me and snapped his bill open and shut as he took his leave. He was pissed OFF!

This Red wing blackbird sat still just long enough for me to take a few photos, of which this is the best one. He also told me to go to Hell and left me floating on the lake.

Not sure what species of duck this is. But he muttered angrily at me as I beached my kayak to photograph him. Then he left in a huff.

Generally speaking, the local Canada geese are a nuisance. They will hang around you and bug you for handouts or attack you to get the hell out of their way. Not these. They took their babies out of the water and headed inland, glaring at me all the while.

Again, these turtles took offense at my presence and plunged into the lake, one by one.

This guy, though...this little dragonfly landed on the front of my kayak and refused to leave. He stayed with me practically the whole day. Even after I beached the kayak!! I had to poke him with my finger to get him to leave so that he didn't get hurt when I loaded my kayak!
I might post some video of the kayak trip tomorrow.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Cemetery.

The kind of cemetery you could afford to build for your family in the late 1700s if you were a Revolutionary War hero, had a plantation of over 1,000 acres, and owned about thirty slaves (some of whom were masons) to build it for you for free.

Looking out of the cemetery toward former plantation land.

Every time I stop here to look at this place I am impressed by the masonry work.


Wealth!

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Advice.

I know a lot of writers, and I know a lot of people (too many, actually) who want to be writers. And over the years--because I have sold many short stories, comic book scripts, review columns, and even some novels--I have been asked for advice on writing. I always feel weird giving advice, mainly because while I may have sold a lot of fiction, I have never been able to earn a living from it. In all of the years I have been working at it, I made tens of thousands of dollars from it only twice: once in the year of my movie deal for THE FLOCK, and one year when I was writing a bunch of comic book scripts for the likes of Marvel Comics and a few other smaller comics publishers.

So I've always felt edgy about answering any questions about how to go about writing professionally.

The only real advice I could ever think of that were worth passing on were the same that you find coming from almost every professional author one would care to mention. And that advice is that first one should read, and ready voraciously and widely. And second, one should write, and write often--perhaps obsessively. If you do the former, you will discover what professional writing looks like. If you do the latter, you will eventually (one would hope) become decent at it.

There is a third bit that I used to give but which is all but useless these days: and that was that you should submit your work to various publications. The pool of professional publications--which was almost anemic even in my youth--has become all but absent. E-publishing and self-publishing have pretty much killed the professional markets, and self-publishing in general has caused the almost complete degeneration of English literature here in the States.

However, it occurred to me some time ago that there is another bit of advice that I could give, and it is this:

Don't compare yourself to any accomplished author, and certainly don't compare yourself to any great writer. Doing this is not only borderline insane, it is also rather a disgusting example of mad ego.

Case in point: Some years back I used to correspond with a professional writer who had sold a number or novels and had garnered a bit of critical praise. He was close to being able to earn his living completely from writing, which is an enviable and admirable feat--something I never could do.

After struggling along selling novels for low to moderate advances, he finally landed a very nice deal with a very large publishing house and for the first time in his life found himself with enough money to live comfortably for at least a year without having to punch a clock. That was cool. I was happy for him.

But then came time for promotional stuff and the interviews pushing this novel which had gotten him such a huge advance. And what does he do? This guy compared himself to Cormac McCarthy!

Yeah. Fuck.

Cormac McCarthy is about as good as it gets. There is only one Cormac McCarthy. If I was going to use the word "genius" to describe a living American author, he is only one of two I'd tag for that praise.

Don't compare yourself to a genius. Not only are you likely lying like a politician, you have set yourself up for a tremendous fall. A Humpty Dumpty fall. Because, really, you cannot hope to be even the tiniest fraction as talented as Cormac McCarthy. I had read this author's books, and he churned out serviceable--and often fun--pulp fiction. There was no brilliance to it. It was good, fun adventure stuff. Unless he'd made a leap of galactic proportion in his work, he was nothing near the ability and talent of McCarthy. I waited for the book, as did everyone else, hoping to see the appearance of a new work of absolute blinding brilliance.

It came out. The book got some very mild praise, some bloody savaging, and it quickly sank out of sight and went out of print. (I tried to read it, but found it both boring and pedestrian.) The editor who had argued for the publisher to cough up the big advance for the novel found himself fired and unemployed (true story). The book of course never came even the tiniest of  a fraction of earning back its advance. The author found himself thereafter without any further novel sales (for years and years).

So. Don't compare yourself to a great writer. I don't care who you are. It's a mistake. You're asking for trouble if you do.

You can say that you were influenced by a great writer, but don't say your work compares favorably to that of an actual genius.

Since that time I have seen self-centered asshole writers compare themselves to Ray Bradbury, to Charles Bukowski, to Charles Portis, to Harry Crews, to Harper Lee, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Ernest Hemingway, to Jack London, to Stephen King, to--Jove help the idiots--Ursula K. Le Guin.

Don't be like those dipshits comparing themselves to greatness. Just be yourself. Show some dignity.


Le Guin, an American treasure.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Invasive. Not Invasive.

What marks an invasive species, really? We all hear the term and those of us who bother to notice can see the effects of an invasive species on a native ecosystem.

Is the definition actually for a species that is currently in place where it does not belong? If so, Homo sapiens is highest on the list, since we likely should only be where we evolved: Africa. But that's not going to change until we go extinct, so back to the real issue.

There is no doubt--to use an example--that pythons are a harmful invasive species in south Florida and in the Everglades National Park. The ecosystem of that part of Earth slowly evolved over millions of years without the presence of a vast, aggressive constrictor snake in its midst. The sudden introduction of such an animal is resulting in the decimation of the native animals that did evolve there and which do belong there. I have no problem labeling pythons in Florida as an invasive species.

Further, there are invasive animals that are present in a foreign ecosystem which are not--apparently--harmful within that environment. When I go kayaking on the Silver River in Florida I generally encounter bands of feral Rhesus monkeys. I won't go in to how they got there (humans brought them, of course), but I often used to wonder if they were harmful to the system in which they found themselves living. I did some reading about it, and learned that apparently they are not considered particularly harmful. General browsers, they don't seem to eat enough of any particular food item in the forests to hinder the lives of the native animals and plants around them.

So. Not all invasive species are harmful.

Some of the worst invasive species are not mammals, reptiles, mollusks, or fish. Many of the most destructive of these things are plants, insects, and pathogens (think of the American chestnut blight). Again, to take Florida as an example, the list of plants that are changing and destroying native ecosystems is off the scales. Quite actually every waterway in Florida is home to any number of invasive plant species. Once established, how do you even begin to remove plants that are fast-growing and endlessly clogging rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams? It's probably an impossible task. The thing is to try to keep it from happening in the first place. But where humans are concerned, the problem seems to be ongoing and never-ending. People are going to acquire and dispose of exotic plants where they should never have been allowed to have them in the first place.

But in the case of plants, what constitutes a harmful invasive species? I actually do have a definition of that which meets popular consensus:

Characterized by:


rapid growth
multiple reproductive methods
wide dispersal and survival
broad environmental tolerance
and resistance to management. (I'll get back to this later.)

And the problems they cause are:

loss of recreation
severe oxygen depletion
stunted fish populations, fish kills
water-flow restrictions, flooding
navigation restrictions
accelerated sedimentation
habitat destruction
loss of biodiversity
reduction in property values.

What strikes me about the list of problems is that they are so centered on the troubles presented to human recreation and human economics. The concern for the local animals and plants is really just something that sits there and is only noticed for its tendency for causing an inconvenience to humans.

Fuck that.

These are problems that beset the web of life in which we all live. Economic concerns are moot. Humans are at the base of the situation, sitting on the web of life that supports everything and methodically plucking out the strands until the whole thing collapses. This constant degradation of Mother Earth is not just going to result in the extinction of some species of big animals, or even of some entire environments that have been present for tens of millions of years. Currently we are in danger of witnessing the total collapse of everything that gives us the air we breathe, the water we need, and the food that sustains us. No more rhinos? No one cares. Hemlock trees extinct? Big deal. Invasive carp eating and out-competing every fish species they encounter? Feh.

We keep plucking out the bits of the web, one string at a time.

Implosion will arrive. And it's not as if we didn't see it coming.

In reference to that list--humans can't manage the Earth. We either live within the limitations of not causing the planet irreparable harm, or we kill it and die with it. You can't manage something with trillions of moving parts. You flow with it, or perish while breaking it.

We have chosen to ignore every warning.

Back in the early 2000s I set about searching out and viewing the big groves of ancient Eastern hemlock forests before they were all extinct from the introduction of an invasive insect species. So that's what I did--I hiked all over the southern Appalachians finding the old trees before they could all succumb. And I saw as many of these places as I could. Those groves? They're all gone, now. All of them. Mankind at its most selfish and pernicious.