Monday, August 31, 2009

Zombie Novel

A friend asked me why I wrote "a zombie novel".

I'll be damned if I can tell you exactly why, but I can think about it, I told him.

Here, then, are my thoughts.

For some reason, the concept of zombies is about as scary as it gets for me, when it comes to horror fiction. For one reason, it transcends the supernatural and passes into the realm of the possible, if not exactly the probable. Like HP Lovecraft's fiction, it could--on purely a technical basis--be an analog to something far more likely. The zombies stand in for so many types of fears on so many levels that it's quite difficult to quantify them.

The first time I saw a zombie movie it frightened the crap out of me. That film was George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. The theme of rampant consumerism was not lost on me, and the ideas of alienation also caused me to be far more effected by the film than I might otherwise have been. As I've said before, George A. Romero's concept of the recently dead returning to life to mindlessly consume the living just pushes so many buttons that it is, to me, the ultimate horror theme. There's never been anything quite like it.

In recent years there has been an explosion in the popularity of zombie fiction. Initially I found this popularity to be a very strange anomaly and it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. One could argue when it began, but some of the early examples of the current wave were Phil Nutman's WET WORK and Len Barnhart's REIGN OF THE DEAD. Before that, about the only time I had seen Romero-esque concepts at work in fiction were in the adaptations of his first few films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD, and the spinoff RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the John Skipp and Craig Spector-edited anthology BOOK OF THE DEAD.

After first Nutman's WET WORK and then Barnhart's REIGN, the floodgates, it seemed, were opened. In recent years a whole slew of zombie novels hit the bookshelves, among them the work of David Wellington, Brian Keene, and others. An entire cottage industry emerged in the form of Jacob Kier's Permuted Press. And comic book publishers got into the act with THE WALKING DEAD, MARVEL ZOMBIES, and the much earlier DEADWORLD. And then followed zombies on the New York Times best seller list with WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks. Zombies had arrived, big time.

All during this period I had entertained the idea of writing a zombie novel. The idea would come and fade and reappear. And during these days I would cruise the Internet looking at various fan sites devoted to zombie fiction. And, slowly, a disturbing trend emerged:

A lot of zombie fiction fans were right wing zealots. They were into guns and ultra-conservative politics and, most disturbingly, they were largely of racist orientation.

The whole zombie scene seemed to be dominated by xenophobes, for whom the zombies had become, in their minds, the blacks and Mexicans and Jews and gays and outlanders they so feared and hated. I lost track of the number of references to various hate-induced slang I would see as I perused these fan sites. In the more polite and politically correct sites I would still encounter it in the form of mildly veiled terminology and in the comments later deleted by the board masters.

So I backed away from the zombie scene for a bit and tried to digest this information and wonder why this form of fiction would appeal to guys like that. Why, when Romero himself had gone so far out of his way to deliver anti-racist messages, was it that his original concept had been hijacked to allow racist garbage to accumulate there? Looking at some of the zombie books that were selling well, I realized that there was just a hairsbreadth difference between most of those and the likes of such things at THE TURNER DIARIES. Simply put, the racists among us had decided that the zombies represented the targets of their hatred. The humans were the pure Aryans fighting valiantly against the tide of "mongrel races".


I backed away still further. I wanted nothing at all to do with that stuff. I stopped reading the zombie books and stopped viewing zombie movies, even with a critical eye. Racism is as low as it gets, and I avoid that crap whenever I see it oozing.

But, after a while, the urge to work within the boundaries of the zombie mythology began to bug me. The urge to attempt such a project was still there and still itching to get out. My agent had mentioned to me that zombie novels were selling and that if I wanted to tackle such a book he should be able to find a market willing to look at it. So I chose that as something to do and began working at it, endeavoring to create something that would deliver a message that was, if anything, anti-racist and anti-fascist.

And that's why I wrote THE LIVING END: A ZOMBIE NOVEL (with Dogs).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Red Green Show.

My pal, Mark Masztal did two versions of an illustration for my zombie novel, THE LIVING END.

One is a rot-green that lends itself to a feeling of sickness and dissolution, and quite appropriate for a novel that concerns itself with zombies. The second version was highlighted in red, which is great for a novel of action and all-out zombie violence. I like them both, and here they are:

THE LIVING END: green version

THE LIVING END: Red version.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bats! I'm busy.

I'm too busy to post anything detailed today. I have to work my regular job and chip away on my novel.

In the meantime, here's an image I'd meant to post earlier. We encountered this at Welch Spring. There was a small "closed" sign in the spring itself. Seemed strange until I realized that you could dive into the water, go through the spring outlet and emerge into an extensive cave system just beyond.

The Park Service does not want you to do this. For the following reason:


Friday, August 28, 2009

The Camera Dies

The last photo I took with the Canon camera before I got stung by bumblebees and dropped it off of the waterfall (in June).

The old camera that I spoke about here finally gave up the ghost. I guess there was just something about falling off of a 100+ foot waterfall into a deep pool of water that, in the final analysis, was more than it could handle. I'd noticed that it was having more and more problems in the weeks since I'd rescued it from the bottom of the falls and brought it home to dry out. First of all, there was the nagging bit of residue inside the lens that always popped up when I was shooting video footage. Most photos came out fine, but all video had that nagging spot right in the middle. Then the motor began to become more and more sluggish.

Finally, on the Missouri trip, the motor completely froze up. The camera had breathed its last. We thought about taking it into some shops, but realized that getting it fixed was going to be more expensive than just buying a new camera. So we bought a small, cheap digital to finish out our trip, and we'll purchase a new camera for official vacation photos this Christmas.

It was a really good camera. I was just too rough on it. So it goes.

The very last photo that we took with the camera before it finally broke down. We were having a picnic at Alley Spring when it just gave up the ghost.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Grasping at Dreams

All of my young adult life I was looking for the neighborhood that I grew up in. The perfect place to raise my son. Nice neighbors. Peace and quiet. Decent homes. Kids playing safely. Local drugstore with a soda jerk on the job, comic books on the shelf. Hobby shop down the block. Trees.

Occasionally I'd find such a neighborhood. You had to make six figures per year to live in them. The cops would spy me checking the place out and follow me until I left.


The '60s of my childhood. Gone, Daddy-O!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Word Bank

I write almost every day.

The only days that I don't actually sit down in front of my keyboard and produce words are, ironically, days when I'm on vacation. My hours are so packed with physical activity when I'm vacationing that I don't bother to make the time that it takes to produce fiction. I reckon I've reached a point in life where writing is a job, just like my seven to three-thirty job. I've decided that this is a good thing.

Producing fiction has become for me something akin to saving money. My wife and I both have various savings and retirement accounts. We drop money in them regularly. Every pay day. The 401-k started off small. I rarely looked at it. One day I realized we had six figures in there. Maybe retirement would be a possibility, I figured at that point. We keep at it.

My writing is like that. Since the movie deal I used a bit of the money for a single luxury item. I bought a laptop computer. The laptop travels with me almost everywhere, even on the vacations I take where I rarely write. It goes to my "real" job with me every single day. Hardly a lunchtime passes that I don't spend it working on a novel between bites. Because of this I've found that I can add anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand words of fiction to my projects every work day.

I deposit words in the novel bank. They go in, every day, and at the end of a week or a month I look at it and realize that I'm that much closer to completing a new novel. In 2009 I finished two novels. I'm hoping to clear out another novel this year and start on a fourth, which is already plotted and awaiting construction.

Early this year I was working on a novel that had given me fits. I just couldn't finish it. Every day I would work on the book and every day when I thought I could put an end to it...the project just kept frustrating me. So I took a few days off and headed up to the mountains with my travel trailer. All alone. No wife. No son. Just me and the forests and the laptop. At the end of three days I found that I was within striking distance of finishing the book. It wasn't a vacation I'd taken, but a break from the world so that I could finish my work at the word bank.

Under the treated hemlocks. Where I worked on my fiction for three silent days.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Long Haul

At the end of every vacation there's that long haul home. Not that big a deal when you fly to your vacation spot, but grueling when you drive. We had a very long drive in front of us so we'd packed up most of our stuff the night before we headed out. So all we had to do was eat breakfast, toss a final few things on the truck, hook up the trailer and take our leave of Big Spring.

This was our campsite just as we were leaving. It wasn't a bad spot. Full shade. The Current River was right behind us through the woods. One thing that always amazes me is the size of some of the RVs and trailers that we see. The trailer just in sight in this photo was a monster. It was almost like seeing a full-sized mobile home. A very young couple had it and were pulling it with a giant American pickup truck with dual wheels.

We stopped for one last look at Big Spring. The morning sun was shining on the pool, making the clear water even a deeper turquoise than before. One neat addition was the guy in the green shirt standing in front of the a bit of the spring water given legs.

We'd heard about this place and had been told to make sure to eat there. We arrived at 10:45 and at first I was afraid we were too early for lunch. But it turned out that we got there at a very good time. It was already crowded, but by the time we'd eaten, the lines were out the door and beginning to wrap around the building!

The food is very good. Lots of great vegetables! Their gimmick is how the waiters serve the hot yeast rolls. The dudes roll down the aisles yelling "Hot rolls! Who wants hot rolls?". And when you raise your hand, they literally throw them to you...sometimes from across the very large dining hall. I never saw one of those guys miss his target.

In addition, waiters walk around with bowls of various freshly cooked vegetable dishes asking if you want anything...generally stuff that you didn't order. We left there thoroughly stuffed. If you're in their neighborhood, I strongly suggest that you give them a try.

The dining hall where we ate. This was just a small part of the dining facility. It's a pretty big place!

I tried to catch some hot yeast rolls in flight, but I never could quite get them.

A bridge as we left Missouri. I can't recall if we were crossing the Ohio River or the Mississippi at this point. There were many barges on the river below us, though. Traveling through this part of the country was was almost like the low country in my native Southeast. The highways were all built on high berms to keep them dry when the big rivers overflow their banks.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inside The Grand Gulf

I have to say that my favorite spot that we visited in Missouri was a place called The Grand Gulf. The part of the Ozarks that we got to see were relatively unimpressive when it comes to vertical. Those "mountains" just aren't very tall. However, the plateau is cut by all sorts of gorges and valleys due to the softness and permeability of the underlying rock.

The Grand Gulf is a true chasm, being deeper than it is wide at many points. It averages about 130 feet deep and is a pretty impressive little geological oddity. It started out as a cave system. About 10K years ago the roof of this section of the cave collapsed, forming what is today a very deep and precipitous gorge.

It's now protected as a day-use state park. There's not much there in the way of facilities. Just a vault toilet, some trails and stairs, a parking lot, and a picnic area with a few tables and benches. However, the point of the park was to protect and preserve the Gulf, so it serves admirably for that.

This was one of the first views I got of the Gulf. Looking down into all of that steep terrain and pure green, I knew that I'd have a hard time finding my way down to the bottom. And even though there aren't any official trails down there, I was bound and determined to get to the base of the valley to get some good photos.

I kept coming across one false trail after another. They would lead down from the rim and eventually end up at the edge of a cliff face with no way down. But the more I saw of the place, the more I knew that I had to find a safe route down the walls.

At last, at the far end of the gorge from the parking area, I spotted a trail that seemed to go all of the way to the floor of the Gulf. I took it and found that it did end up where I wanted to go.

I passed a couple of small caves that vanished into the shadows as I hiked along the floor of The Grand Gulf. I didn't muck about in them, though. I was there to get some shots of the great stone arch and the vertical walls and not to wander around in caves.

I had to pretty much just wade through the green when I finally picked my way down the trails to the bottom. Thoughts of snakes and ticks and chiggers occurred to me as I passed through this knee-high green stuff.

This was at the bottom of the stone arch. This is a spot where the ancient cave roof did not completely collapse. So instead of a gorge we are now left with the largest natural arch in the state of Missouri. On one side (this one) it's over 75 feet high. On the other end it's about ten feet high. Inside the arch it's very shaded and cool, even on this day which was quite warm and humid.

The trail leading into the archway.

I couldn't find a good place to set up my little tripod for a self-portrait. This was about the best I was able to get.

After passing through the arch I looked up to see this view of one of the heads of the canyon. If you look at the top of the rim, you can see the edge of the wooden deck built there to afford casual visitors a glance into the depths.

I ended up climbing out of the gorge via a different route than the one I took down. I found a trail leading up to my right after I visited the arch and made my way in that direction. It seemed to be well-traveled.

The trail took me to the base of this stairwell that was the only official way down to the foot of the gorge. Of course you're not supposed to vault the fence at the bottom and hike even farther down. I just climbed over the fence and made my way back to the parking area at the top of the canyon.

I took this of the opening of the arch. It's quite an impressive sight.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lower Current

Our first day of floating and exploring the Current River was on the lower section of the river. While quite pretty, this section is not as scenic as the upper Current. In addition, the day we went was, we later learned, the most crowded the river had been all summer. Our outfitter told us a few days later that they had ferried 3,000 people to put-ins along the river that day. Trying to negotiate between the masses of tubers and canoe/kayak enthusiasts was sometimes problematic. Add to this the fact that boats with motors up to 40hp are allowed on the river, and there is the recipe for some unpleasantness.

However, the water was cool and clear and we still had a great time as we negotiated our way downriver. One nice thing about the Current is that it's spring-fed, so the level of the river stays fairly constant when compared to other such tributaries. Thus, it's almost always navigable along its entire length. If you're not paying attention, you might hit a shoal or barely concealed gravel bar that requires you to get out to find deeper water, but by and large you can float unimpeded the entire way.

Loading up and heading out was something of a madhouse. Believe me...this was only a small portion of the crowd that we encountered along the way. Fortunately, the numbers dwindled the farther we went, since there were various pickup spots along the way, and some people traveled shorter distances than we did.

There is a stretch of the Current that is in private hands and is not officially part of the National Park. On this section there are houses, commercial camps, and other such things. This fellow was using his lot to park a hot dog stand. He was doing quite the business.

Again, this was on a stretch of privately-owned riverbank. This absolutely cool house was perched on the precipice of a cliff face with staircase down to a private dock (down on the lower right). I do believe that the water here was deep enough to allow for jumping from the deck into the river.

Not long before our takeout at Big Spring Campground. This is the remains of an old railroad trestle that once crossed the Current River. Today it's a good landmark to let you know that the canoe ramp is nearby.

Heading back to our travel trailer in the evening after our canoe trip, the deer were grazing in the grass beside the campground.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lilly Remembers

Animals recall things, of course. I'm of the opinion that most mammals not only have good memories, but that they combine these with emotions and a form of reason that parallels our own abilities to do the same sort of thing.

For instance, we picked up Lilly from the breeder when she was just a few weeks old. She was quite the kitten when we brought her home. That night, Carole took along a plush blankie to wrap her in for the trip home. Lilly slept on that blanket for her first few nights with us.

She remembers that. In fact, even today, her favorite place to nap is on that blanket. She has quite a choice of places to relax, but wherever that blanket lies...that's her first choice as a spot to curl up and rest. It means something to her. It's familiar and comforting and represents security and comfort to Lilly.

On a chair in my office, Lilly sleeps atop her pink blankie.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Home

We took one full day to drive to some other spots around southern Missouri. One of these places was the small town of Mansfield, which had been the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House books. Popular long before Michael Landon produced the TV series of "Little House on the Prairie", my wife grew up reading the books. So when she discovered that Mrs. Wilder's home was just a short drive from where we were camping, we decided to head that way to visit the Wilder house and museum.

The visit there was a lot more fun and informative than I had imagined. One thing that I discovered was that Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had been a well-known and quite successful author long before her mother became one. In fact, it was Rose Wilder Lane who encouraged her mother to begin putting on paper the memories of her pioneer childhood of 1800s mid-West USA. I learned that Lane was a seminal influence on the Libertarian movement, a political group whose tenets I don't generally like. However, one has to be impressed with Lane's career and life, no matter her right wing tendencies. One thing that I found admirable about her is that she did not seem to have any racist tendencies whatsoever.

This was the sight of the original Wilder house and museum as we walked up the driveway to the facility.

One of Rose Wilder Lane's desks on display in the museum. We spent quite a lot of time in the museum examining photographs and text about the Wilder and Ingalls families.

I took this photo because of the incongruity of it. This fellow was wearing this very rude shirt as we went about the tour of the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, certainly a woman of impeccable manners. I think a fart would have been a relief from standing near this guy--he stank and I suspect it had been quite some time since he'd bathed. The building for which we were headed was a video room where we watched a short documentary about the Wilder family and the museum establishment. There's also a book and gift shop attached, which was doing quite a brisk business. I was surprised at how many people were visiting the Wilder home on this weekday.

Carole, standing in front of the first Wilder home. This is the house that Almonzo Wilder built, a section at a time (originally it was a one-room cabin). They lived here for many years, with only an eight-year absence while they lived a short distance away in the house their daughter built for them as a gift. No photography is allowed in the house, which is unfortunate, because I really wish I could have saved some images from inside.

A short distance away is the Wilder "Rock House". This was where Laura and Almonzo Wilder lived for eight years, and where the first four Little House books were written. The desk where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote those books is still on display in that building.

The Rock House was built on the back 40 of the 200-acre Wilder farm. One interesting feature here is the rock retaining wall that had been built by Almonzo Wilder. For many years this house was under the ownership of another family. Until the museum bought it back, no one realized that this retaining wall existed. Over the intervening years after the Wilders sold it, the wall had become buried by brush and soil. It was only during renovation that it was rediscovered.

One thing that struck me about this 1928 home is how modern it remains. The plan had been ordered by Rose Wilder Lane out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog. The house has modern wiring and plumbing and is quite airy and bright. I wouldn't mind living in that house myself. But the Wilders, homesick for the old place, moved out and into their original home as soon as Rose Wilder Lane left the older house to move to Connecticut. They then sold the Rock House and the 40 acres surrounding it to a neighbor. Today, the Ingalls Wilder museum owns the home, but the adjoining 35 acres still remains with the family who bought it in 1936.

I took this as we were leaving the Rock House. This was part of the grounds directly around the house.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dr. Diehl's Folly

One very interesting spot that we hit was while we were on our favorite part of the Current River (upper section). We both wanted to see the ruins of the old Welch Hospital, a sanitarium built for TB sufferers. The hospital ended up being a financial disaster for its owner and it closed for good in 1945, 32 years after its construction.

When we got to the put-in spot we had a number of canoes to choose from. As we'd had a good experience with an aluminum canoe on our first float on the Current, we picked one of those. It turned out to be a moderately bad choice. After we'd left the launch area and were about a half-mile down the river I noticed that the canoe was taking on water. I quickly saw that the bottom had a very small puncture that was allowing water to come in. We had to stop a couple of times on the float to dump the water out. The leak wasn't severe, but it was a minor pain to have to clear out the water.

We stopped at this gravel bar to have lunch, go swimming, and to empty the water we had taken on. This was a really nice place to stop. We watched the fish, took a fair amount of time to swim in the clear water, and generally just took it easy and soaked up some sun.

After a couple of hours we came to Welch Spring, which produces over 105 million gallons of water a day, making it a first magnitude spring. There's an extensive cave system just inside the spring opening, although it's closed to anyone who doesn't have a research permit to explore it.

Built right on the shore of the spring run is the old Welch Hospital. I'm always amused at the impermanence of Mankind's buildings. There were several cabins adjacent to the hospital and I couldn't find any trace of them at all. Anything that was wood that was associated with the old sanitarium is long since gone. All that remains are the stone walls and the poured concrete.

Dr. Diehl went to a lot of expense and trouble to construct this place. The walls still seem to be in relatively good shape, although it's only a matter of a few more decades before the trees start to topple them over.

This plaque has a representation of what the hospital looked like when it was still intact.

I climbed up on a rocky bluff to take this photo of the building. You can just see Carole on the far right behind a small tree.

This was the staircase leading up to what was once the main door. You wonder about the patients who made the long journey to this place to seek treatment for their tuberculosis. I tried to imagine them walking up these stairs to what they hoped would be relief from suffering.

There is the constant sound of rushing water as the spring flow makes its brief way downslope to the Current River. Beyond the spring run, the Current River becomes even more clear than above, and noticeably colder.

When we paddled past this spot, this was our last view of Welch Spring as we moved on down the Current River.