Sunday, May 31, 2009

Working Vacation

I'm vanishing for three days on a working vacation to the mountains. I promised my agent I'd work for a bit with no interruptions on the new novel. I hope to finish it while sitting in the high country beside a mountain stream.

We'll see.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

And the Award Goes to...

I used to be a member of HWA (Horror Writers Association). The same anagram, ironically, for the reason for the title of this blog: Hemlock wooly adelgid (the invasive insect that's driving our native hemlock trees to extinction). I found HWA (the one in all caps), at the time, to be a very helpful writers association and I enjoyed my initial membership. These days, I can't recall when I first joined or for how long I was a member. But I was there for a number of years.

One thing that HWA does is sponsor an award. It's called the Bram Stoker Award. I never paid a lot of attention to it, except that every year I would get a ballot to cast votes for the various works placed on those ballots. Best novel. Best short story. Best first novel. Best screenplay. You know how it goes.

Eventually, it seemed that the sole reason for the organization became the issuing of these awards. I began to lose interest in the group and let my membership lapse. It's been a long, long time since I was a member.

One of my friends actually won one of these awards. I won't name him, since I don't know how he'd feel about that. But he began to call the annual prizes doled out by HWA the "Stroker Awards". It was, he felt, a huge circle jerk. In fact, I'd have to agree with him. For what I saw happening was that every year I'd witness writers campaigning for their works. First they'd pepper the Internet chat rooms with propaganda for their stories and novels--generally after getting close friends who were also members to cast a few nominations of their works (and for whom they'd also cast votes--quid pro quo aka circle jerk). From there, it would get worse. After the most popular writers had their works solidly nominated and on the ballots, I would begin to get slammed with notes and letters asking me to cast my ballot for their novel, short story, article, what-have-you.

This seemed exceptionally venal to me. It reeked of a kind of narcissism that frankly sickens me. One year, a particularly untalented fellow peppered me almost constantly with pleas to vote for his stuff. He was, apparently, well-liked at writers gatherings and conventions where he'd attend (despite the fact that he couldn't write worth a good goddamn). I assume he had an outgoing personality and what was once called the "gift for gab". But he couldn't write worth shit, and I always felt sorry for him. Of course he won at least one of these things. At that point, the awards, and the group administering them, really became, at best, disputable for me.

This is why I finally dropped my membership in HWA and never even considered joining SFWA or MWA or any of the other WAs that might be out there. I just don't like seeing the egotistical bullshit falling like stench-rain over my life.

Are there positive aspects to these organizations? I'm sure there are. I think some of them have arms that work hard to protect writers' rights. It might be the closest thing to a union that we are likely to see for fiction writers. And that aspect of it is a good thing. But these seem to be, overall, subdued to a secondary status to the politics of issuing these stupid awards.

And the little cliques of butt-buddies and ass-kissers who tend to dominate these groups? Well, they can stick it. Unless that aspect of these organizations is wiped out or reined in, they're not going to do much of anyone any good.

The super-cool Bram Stoker Award. A little haunted house created by, I think, Tim Kirk. Has a tiny (blatantly vaginal) door (complete with clitoris) that you can open up to reveal a brass plaque inside engraved with the award-winner's name and for what he/she won the award (sniff-sniff). This is what my pal (who won one) called "The Stroker Award". Referring, of course, to the incestuous cabal to which one must generally be a part to nab one of these meaningless bits of propaganda. (Saving, of course, that Tim Kirk's design kicks High Holy ass.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Time Out!

Brief history of a novel:

I never give up on a piece of fiction that shows promise. Witness my short story "Visitation" which bounced around various markets before finally landing in the pro anthology CHILDREN OF CTHULHU almost twenty years after I wrote it. It was a good story and I knew that eventually someone would accept it.

My first agent was Richard Curtis, a gent with an impressive client list and a good reputation. After trying to get me published for some time, he gave up on me and dumped my name from his client list. It was, as they say, merely business.

After signing with a new agent I started work on a horror novel that was called BEAUTIFUL BOY. The opening chapter always impressed everyone who saw it or who heard me read it. (I read it aloud at a couple of horror conventions.) My then-new agent liked it so much that she took the outline and the first chapter and told me that she was going to try to sell it based on those items alone. And then she went crazy, but that's another story, and one that I probably won't ever tell, anyway.

Because I was suddenly without an agent, I decided to shelve the book. Every so often I would haul it out of mothballs and read it and be impressed and recall why I'd thought it was an important project in the first place. And I'd put the old nose to the grindstone and start writing again. After a while, the subconscious stuff percolated to the surface and I realized what I was writing:

an anti-racism tale.

And, as the topic alone is scary enough, I was frightened that I didn't have what it took to write that kind of a thing. So I scared myself off the project and shelved it yet again.

Time passed. Years, in fact. One person who'd read that first section so long before asked me why the book wasn't a best seller yet. I had to admit to him that I had never finished it. He was disappointed and suggested that I work on the book.

After some time, I decided that he was correct and made it first on my list as soon as I completed THE FLOCK. Of course when that book was done and my new agent had THE FLOCK in hand, I picked up the pieces of BEAUTIFUL BOY and started in again. By this time, the "book" stood at around 17,000 words. So I wasn't actually starting from nothing, but neither was it the bulk of a novel. And the concept and my ability to make it work were still scary prospects for me. But I wanted to see it through and dove into the novel yet again.

My agent at that time didn't like it. Well, she didn't actually say that she didn't like it, but she was not, let us say, impressed. Without my agent's enthusiasm for the book, I didn't see it faring much of a chance at publication. I set it aside.

I worked on a project called FAMILY. But BEAUTIFUL BOY kept tugging. I started a book with the working title ASSASSIN, and BEAUTIFUL BOY was there nagging the hell out of me. It wouldn't leave me alone.

But then I was writing my zombie novel THE LIVING END and tried to ignore the characters in my long-suffering uncompleted novel and put my focus with dogs and zombies. I kept plugging away and finally completed THE LIVING END in short order once the book was suddenly my lone project (it had begun as a collaboration that failed).

So, finally, I was ready to face the novel I had always called BEAUTIFUL BOY once more. I've been hard at work on it since early this year. After many false starts, after many years, after being afraid of the book, I'm just at the end. To hasten its completion, I'm taking some time off from the "real" job to run to a part of the North Carolina high country that I've never seen. I'm going to park my trailer beside a mountain stream for three days and put this project to bed, properly, at last.

As for the title, which I discussed here, I've yet to solve that particular problem. But I hope to see a proper title for it very soon.

You know I won't hole up in the trailer the entire time. I'll get some hiking done.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wolf Creek

Here are some more of the photos of the wayside park we stumbled upon in southwestern Virginia. It's a Jefferson National Forest site called Wolf Creek. Apparently there's a nearby and important Native American historical site, but we didn't have time to find it.

After stopping to look around, we liked the spot so much that we decided to have a cookout there rather than at one of the larger parks which had been our original mealtime destination. So we hauled out the charcoal and the food and picked out a really nice picnic table and grill standing above the river.

The sign that caught our attention as we were driving along.

As always, I look around for bits of small beauty growing among the shrubs or beneath the trees.

Some type of little yellow flower.

There was an extremely nice picnic shelter that needed to be raked out. But otherwise in quite good shape.

The picnic table we picked out was between two small waterfalls and above the river, which was quite full, unlike the drought-ravaged streams of the past two years.

This was the river below our picnic table.

The oldies fire up the charcoal and get ready to grill bratwurst. With sauerkraut! Yum!

Alas. The hemlock trees at the little park are already all dead. So it goes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Lilly Wants

Lilly remains our kitty-cat treasure. She's grown so much since we picked her up, but she's still very much a kitten.

For some reason, she is fascinated by our dryer. Why? Hell if I know. I can only speculate. Could it be the scent of the fabric softener? Is it because she can curl up in the open cylinder and pretend to hide? Is it the fleeting warmth of the dry cycle?

Only Lilly knows!

And she ain't talkin'.

Lilly refusing to help me sweep up the lint.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Beware, Szukalski!

There was this fascinating artist named Stanislaw Szukalski.

For some personal reasons, I avoided even so much as reading about the guy for many years. This was because my first exposure to him was via a pair of crazy comic book artists I knew. Both of these guys were (and, I suppose, still are) racists. One of them is bonafide insane, and the other is a closet Nazi. But that was other stories for other days and which I've already covered.

The point being, of course, that because my first exposure to the work of Szukalski was via a Nazi and a crazy racist, I was quite suspicious of so much as looking at Szukalksi's work. Finally, though, after coming across a number of references to the artist, I decided to take a lingering gander at his accomplishments.

Much of his work, apparently, was destroyed by his fellow Poles who were, at the time, heavily involved in measuring up to their Soviet overlords. Any anti-communist aspects of Szulkalski's work can be understood, due to those circumstances. And, perhaps, this is why he seems to appeal to neo-Nazis and their kith, the neo-Conservatives. If it hates communism, it must therefore be good.

Labor by Szukalski

And so, I'd been working under the assumption that because Neo-Nazis and Neo-Cons seemed to adore this guy, I should avoid his legacy at all cost.

It was a mistake.

When I finally did look at his art, I was pretty much astounded. I will admit that I admire many of those who have lots of artistic talent, as my own abilities lay pretty much atrophied in that respect. (There was a time when I thought I'd pursue graphic arts, but I laid it aside to chase after literary accomplishments. When the end comes, we'll see if I made a good choice.) But the fact remains that I am sometimes astounded by art, regardless of the source.

When I finally did start to look at what remained of his art, I was quite put off by his rather strange and bizarre ideas concerning the history of Mankind. This crazy bastard actually believed in The Great Deluge and that he could prove that it actually happened. I'm just not into that Fortean stuff, but apparently crazy racists and closet Nazis are. Still, I fought through that aspect of his work and indeed began to look upon it as just another manifestation of his art. For even
a fascist can produce beautiful works of art. So can a communist. Political orientation apparently is not necessarily a detriment to creativity.

Struggle by Szukalski

But I remain puzzled as to why Szulkalski seems to be so popular among the right wing pieces of shit in the arts community. When I do run across his name, it's generally from some right wing asswipe artist I've chanced to meet, or at the website of such a person.

Oh, well. It's just a mystery. And I won't let it color my attitude toward the man's art.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Idea's the Thing

Let's face it:

The USA is not the literary capitol of the world. It just ain't. Americans are, by and large, a bunch of idiots. And it's not even that--the percentage of the the ones who do read...well...they read...let's call it light fare.

Okay. I'll be a little more kind. Stephen King always says that he writes "salami". So most Americans read "salami". That's okay. I'm not being cruel to whatever your favorite cold cut is. I'm just saying--like King said--that that's what it is:

cold cuts.

It's fast food. It's hamburgers and fried p'taters. And mass produced, at that.

And it's become even worse over the years.

When I was a young writer trying to sell short stories for a penny a word and, hopefully, some exposure in whatever slick or semi-pro magazine I could crack, I was packed with stories. Frankly, I was bursting at the seams to let them all out. I'd write like crazy and send stories out to magazines eight, nine, ten at a time. I kept careful records of where my stories were and who had them and who'd rejected them and who was likely to buy them and who'd bought them, etc. etc.

There was this guy whose name I'd see from time to time in those days when I was in my twenties and struggling like mad to make a sale. He was always around. Usually hanging about with folk who'd already "made it". Seemed a nice enough fellow, though, and full of ideas.

I forgot about him while I was trying to sell my yarns. He vanished into the background.

And, slowly, I began to realize that the old rule--"the plot's the thing"--had fallen away. It wasn't that anymore. Things had deteriorated to such an extent that the market had boiled it down to simply the basic idea: the one-line Hollywood pitch. Yeah, things had gotten that bad, even by the time I was entering my early 30s. Alas.

Once, I submitted a short story to a certain horror magazine being co-edited by a certain part-time writer/editor. That story was "One of Those Days". It was a decent story, but with a really good idea. That idea was this:

What if everyone in the USA who owned a gun suddenly walked out their door with those guns and started shooting?

That was the idea. So it became my short story "One of Those Days" and I sent it out to that certain magazine and that certain editor/writer. It was rejected. I still have the rejection letter. The editor/writer liked it, but said that it lacked a certain "impetus". His word: impetus.

I forgot about the rejection letter (but stored it in a folder as I did with all of my rejection letters). A couple months passed. I got a review copy of the new issue of that certain magazine co-edited by that certain writer/editor who'd told me that my story lacked that certain "impetus". I opened the magazine and started reading. The feature story in that magazine was by that editor/writer who'd rejected my story. Preceding it was a brief editorial by the publisher explaining how the issue had been ready to go to press when his co-editor had dropped that story in his lap. It was so good that he had to lay out the issue all over again so that he could include his co-editor's story that, the publisher explained, had just been written.

The plot of that story?

What if everyone in the USA who had a gun suddenly walked out their doors with those guns and started using them?

Uh huh. I was really, really pissed. But what could I do? Yeah, I had the rejection letter. Yeah, I had my story. Yeah, there was a mighty huge chunk of circumstantial evidence of a certain level of plagiarism there. But really? What could I do?

In addition, this certain writer/editor had come up with a way-cooler title for his version of my story than I had used. That really pissed me off, too.

Every time I think of the whole mess, I get really quiet and my hands turn into fists. Fists with quite a lot of "impetus".

Ah, well.

One of these days I may take this up in more specific terms. Maybe. Maybe not. I just ain't sure. But the thing that nasty experience taught me more than any other was the value of "the Idea". Hang onto it. Make sure you can make it your own, some way.

That dude that I used to see way back when? The guy who was always hanging out with other creative folk? He's gone on to make quite a living for himself selling ideas. Not even stories or novels. Just ideas. At least one of them was the #1 movie for a couple of weeks in recent years. My hat's off to him. He discovered a way to cash in on his basic idea without letting someone else fucking steal it from him.

The idea, dudes. That's the thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rocks and Green.

I very much enjoyed my hike on Big Walker Mountain. Since it's a high mountain trail that follows the heavily forested ridge, there's not a lot to see in the way of long range vistas, as is the norm with many Appalachian area trails. No low country, so there weren't any streams or waterfalls to view. I happened upon a few small springs that likely went on to form creeks and cascades, but that would be far below the places I was hiking.

Since the summits were so heavily forested, there also weren't a lot of views. There were some overlooks, but even these were limited to a few degrees without obstruction by greenery. In a place that is part of one of the most botanically diverse on the planet, there's a lot of opportunity for big trees to fling their trunks and limbs into the sky, blocking the panoramas one might find in other mountainous terrain. Don't go hiking in the Southern Appalachians expecting tremendous views. You'll find them, from time to time, but they're the oddity rather than the norm.

So you have to find beauty in other ways. It's always there, of course, when you're hiking in the southern high country. The flowers, the trees, the ferns, the mosses--even just the broken rock. The Appalachians have been shattering and eroding away for at least a quarter of a billion years. They must have been really high peaks to leave behind even the 6,000-foot monarchs that form the tallest that greet us in modern times.

And that's what I did that day on Big Walker Mountain. I hiked about and looked upon the bones of the Blue Ridge and the trees and plants that cloaks that arthritic stone.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stairway to Pabst Blue Ribbon

Lots of people have a cultural heritage. It might be a weak heritage, or a pernicious one--but they have one.

Generally speaking, citizens of the USA don't have any such thing. They have fast food and TV shows and generic monotheistic religion--this crap passes for culture in our nation. But they have no love of native language, they have no sense of tradition, and they have almost nothing that could be considered remotely as a self-revealing set of morals and educational rituals. Instead, the people of the USA have the internal combustion engine, guns, watery beer, and a proclivity for intolerance and violence.

Case in point are my own set of roots:

On my dad's side I'm Scots-Irish. My folk apparently at one time, hailed from the depths of Scotland. I don't know shit about Scottish tradition and history.

On my mom's side of the family my immediate genetic roots are Austrian Jews and solid English. I don't know any Hebrew, damned few Jewish traditions, and nothing of anything remotely Anglo.


So what am I left with?

Recently I visited a place in West Virgnia called Pinnacle Rock State Park. It was, apparently, established as West Virginia's very first state park. It's not a very attractive spot for a park. It sits right beside a four-lane roadway (that was being widened while I was there). It has few of the amenities that one normally associates with a park--no campground, and it seemed terribly cramped in the way of space. Oh, well.
The park's namesake: The Pinnacle.

But I wanted to see this place because I'd heard that it was a bit of fun to climb and had a good view from the summit. So I went.

The thing is a tower of sandstone at the top of a ridge that is set above a town beside a heavily traveled highway. Don't go expecting to find any peace and quiet. You'll have to deal with the constant drone of diesel and gas engines and, probably, the bellowing of other humans.

All I wanted to do was snap a few photos and climb the damned thing. I did that.

What would Billy Bob do?

As I got to the top I, of course, encountered signs telling me to stay on the trail and not to go rock climbing. Rock climbing is apparently allowed, but only with a permit. I got to the top and looked around. Strangely, I was the only one on the pinnacle. My wife was oddly the only other human in the park. When we'd driven up, the single park employee had quickly shut the door of the visitor's center, jumped into his pickup truck, and driven away in some haste. I assume it must have been lunch hour, because it was early in the afternoon and certainly not closing time. For whatever reason, I found myself alone on the needle of rock with no one in authority to enforce the rules spelled out on the signs around me.

My Southern nature kicked in.

I climbed over the barriers that are supposed to keep you off the summit. I scaled the rocky walls, contrary to the rules that were doled out by permit. I got to the summit of the Pinnacle.

I done went and did it, now.

The first thing I noted wast that the goddamned thing is covered in grafiti. Serious grafiti. Painted in on flat latex and flourescent day-glo and permanent oil. The rock is violated in typical country-boy fashion, words declaring loyalty to various schools, clubs, girlfriends, beers, etc. I recognized this display of casual destruction immediately as part of my white trash redneck culture. From which I arose and within which I am, begrudgingly, a part.

So that's my culture. The USA redneck culture. As flat and featureless and as tasteless and stupid as anything that ever crawled out of the muck.

Surrounded by the signs of my culture: spray-painted idiocy in the cave just under the summit of West Virginia's Pinnacle.

I really need to learn Gaelic, or Yiddish.

Maybe both.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Keith or Clutch?

I rarely watch TV. I know that a lot of people say that, but in my case it's true.

So I had some downtime and I was lying in bed and grabbed the remote and switched on the telly. There was some investigative show. But what grabbed me was that the guy narrating it was weird looking. He didn't appear to be wholly real. It was as if his face was fabricated from cartoon parts.

His name, apparently, is Keith Morrison. Here he is:

He reminded me of someone. Who, though?!

And then, it hit me.

When my parents moved us from Decatur GA to Macon GA when I was in the seventh grade, the local TV station was showing some really bizarre cartoons that weren't run in the Atlanta area. (Yeah, I watched a LOT of TV when I was a kid.) One of those bizarre toons was a piece of bizarro filmmaking called CLUTCH CARGO. Sometimes I'd watch it more out of horror than for any other reason. It was one of those-Great Jove! What they fuck were they thinking??!!-kinds of experiences. I'd watch it out of morbid curiosity for a few minutes before wandering off to read a comic or a novel or maybe to take a dump.

At any rate, Keith Morrison, it occurred to me, looked just like Clutch-fucking-Cargo. Here's Mr. Cargo:

It's just fucking uncanny is what it is.

Reporting from the madhouse known as the USA, this is James R. Smith.

"We welcome you to Munchkin Land..."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hiking Big Walker Mountain, Rocks & Green Stuff

I'd set aside the 15th for nothing but hiking and taking it easy. I'd decided on a relatively casual stroll along the Big Walker Mountain Trail. Easy because the trail terminus begins just a few hundred vertical feet below the high points along the mountaintop. So all I was looking at was a stroll through the rolling topography of the ridge line.

This part of the mountain is solidly in National Forest lands and is relatively protected. Yes, it can still be cut as timber, but you won't see any paved roads cut through these acres, and there won't be any subdivisions landing here.

Here's a map view of the trail. I started near the Big Walker Mountain Tower. The tower's a private property affair. It's an impressive site located at around 3400 feet elevation, but the owner's charge $5 to climb the 100-foot tower. If I'm going to bust my ass climbing, I don't feel like paying for the experience. Not when there are plenty of free spots to catch views of the nearby peaks.

Sign at the trailhead just behind the Walker Mountain Tower and Country Store.

Moss along the trail.

Closeup shot of the moss.

Super closeup shot of the moss.

A rock formation along the trail, not far from a place called "Monster Rock".

Me, under the rock overhang. I think it would be a safe place to hang out in a thunderstorm.

Another species of moss.

Closeup of the other moss.

Super-duper closeup.

Beseeching the mountain gods for a nice hike. I guess they had their beseeching ears on that day. It didn't rain until I'd finished my hike.

Another pretty blossom that I can't identify.

This is probably one kick-ass beautiful fully bloomed rhododendron today. Not quite ready the day I was there.

First view from near "Monster Rock". I don't know if "monster" refers to the size of the rock, or if monsters live on, around, or under it. I didn't see any monsters.

The entire ridgeline was packed with vast numbers of huge expanses of enormous rocks and boulderfields.

Considering that the only things I encountered on the entire hike were rocks, growing things, and views, this was one of the most peaceful hikes I've enjoyed in quite some time. I'll post more photos from this peak later...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Little Walker Mountain

Climbing Little Walker Mountain.

When we first got to the campground, Carole was exhausted--she'd been up for twenty-four hours because of her night job as a surgical tech and wrapping up some chores toward finalizing our packing for the trip. So as soon as we got the trailer set she went right off to sleep.

I took the opportunity to take the Stony Fork/Seven Sisters trails to the summit of Little Walker Mountain. The trail started just a few campsites down from our own. I hiked about half a mile down the Stony Fork Nature Trail to where it intersects with the Seven Sisters Trail. So named because in its five miles it traverses seven distinct peaks on the ridge line of Little Walker Mountain.

The "Seven Sisters" of Little Walker Mountain.

One of the things about the hike was that it was loaded with newly blooming wildflowers. Most of them were quite small, but some of them were larger. I was surprised to see that a number of Catawba rhododendron werz already in full bloom. This is something I didn't expect to see until much later in the month and into June.

It was nice to hike the mountain. I just started walking and set a goal of only going until three in the afternoon. At which point I'd turn around and retrace my steps. The climb was about 1,000 feet, which is a fair amount of vertical. But it was done over the course of about two and a half miles, so it wasn't bad at all. With the temperatures in the low 70s and a constant and quite brisk breeze going, I barely broke a sweat.

Also, I stopped often to take photographs all along the way. I encountered lots of flowers, as I mentioned, but not much in the way of wildlife. I don't know why I didn't see more in the way of critters, but this was the way of it. The only animals of note that I saw were some Black vultures as I got close to the summit. Other than that there wasn't anything to see. But it was still a very peaceful and calming hike.

I stopped for a while at the highest point on the peak--a summit that's at 3340 feet above sea level. That's admittedly not a very high peak--even by Appalachian standards, but the mountain was so green and so bereft of human company that I spent a happy few hours hiking the ridges and coves.

Me and the mountaintop.

Just rhododendron blowing in a cool breeze.

Blooming wild azaleas in the breeze.