Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Best Zombies in Media

For years I've loved the zombie trope created by George Romero. As I've mentioned before, his creation of the shambling undead incorporate and encompass just about every fear and phobia you could name. The possibilities for themes both covert and overt are endless. This is one reason that I felt I had to try my hand at penning a zombie novel.

So, I want to do a list. Everyone seems to like compiling lists. Lists of bests, worsts, must-haves, you-name-it. The following here is a simple list of the best uses of the zombie in various forms of art. This is by no means a complete list, but is a compilation of the creations that spring to mind and which were instrumental in my own development as a writer, and as a creator of the zombie novel, THE LIVING END.

Top of the Heap: This one is easy. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD directed by George A. Romero, screenplay by Romero and John Russo, a variation on a theme by Richard Matheson. This movie is the masterpiece of claustrophobia and paranoia. Romero never made it a secret that this film was an allegory based on the Richard Matheson novel I AM LEGEND. To this day, the original NIGHT is still the best adaptation of Matheson's seminal themes.

"They're coming to get you, Barbara."

Second: The original DAWN OF THE DEAD film by George Romero. In this film we see for the first time the zombie utilized as the instrument of apocalypse. It was as brilliant a move as the original concept Romero revealed in the 1968 film. The underlying commentary of consumerism has not been lost on the audience over the intervening years. If there's a movie with a more kinetic and frantic opening, I've not encountered it.

"What floor is this?"

Third: Richard Matheson's novel, I AM LEGEND. Yeah, I know. It's vampires and not zombies. But it might as well be zombies, the way Matheson portrays the pathetic and ravaged infected who have surrounded the last living man on Earth. I encountered this novel when I was fifteen years old and the first line grabbed me. I was hooked. It's a pity that no one has ever done the novel justice as a film. Until then, we have Romero's first zombie movie, and that's good enough.

Richard Matheson, one of the great fantasists of our age.

Fourth: Len Barnhart's indie novel, REIGN OF THE DEAD. I stumbled upon this novel after meeting Len Barnhart either at a convention or online. I honestly can't recall how I first found the book. But once I'd found it, I was really happy that I had. When Mr. Barnhart published REIGN OF THE DEAD there had been virtually no other zombie novels. To my knowledge, only Phil Nutman's WET WORK and the various novelizations of Romero zombie movies preceded it. In those days, who the heck would publish a novel about flesh-eating zombies? Well, apparently, nearly no one. Len Barnhart pretty much started the zombie wave and created a whole new market for apocalyptic fiction about the undead overwhelming the living. The book was great when it came out and it's still great now.

Fifth: THE WALKING DEAD. Robert Kirkman wasn't the first to bring zombies to comics, but he was the first to do it effectively. There had been some notable attempts to do comic book zombies; however, Kirkman blew the others away with something the rest of them lacked: characterization. With THE WALKING DEAD you had finally found a continuing series that had people in it who were not bland cutouts. I first heard about the title when I found myself talking to fans of the comic who didn't normally even read comics! They were following the series for the simple reason that it was so well written and that the situations seemed true to them, despite the fantastic setting. For comics, zombie fiction doesn't get any better.

Zombies well done.

Sixth: WET WORK by Phil Nutman. Wet Work is a term that describes the task of killing people, principally by those who work as assassins for various governments. The world of WET WORK begins in just such a situation as a zombie plague begins to envelope the Earth. This was another what-the-heck-is-going-on-here? experience. When Nutman published this book as a mass market paperback it was unique: a zombie novel. It actually preceded REIGN OF THE DEAD and it had zombie fandom to itself for a very long time. Why Nutman never followed it up with another similar novel is a mystery. I kept waiting for another, but it never came. The book is out again in a deluxe format, and I recommend it.

THE WALKING DEAD television series. It's not quite the series I was expecting, but it's pretty darned good, so far. If you haven't seen it, go rent the DVD or buy a set. If you're a zombie fan, you'll like it. If you enjoy drama in general, you'll probably still get a kick out of it.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Darabont."

Well, as the seventh-born of a seventh-born of a seventh-born, I'll leave it at that lucky number. For now. In the meantime, you can buy my own zombie novel THE LIVING END in both trade paperback and Kindle.

"This guy James Robert Smith can write! Not since Philip K. Dick have I read an author who so convincingly paints the social milieu of his story's world. From the very first page I felt eerily and alarmingly at home in James Robert Smith s The Living End. Every detail is masterfully rendered on the page. Plus, he gives us zombies. And dogs! I loved The Living End. Bravo, James Robert Smith! Your book blew me away." - Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Turok, Son of Stone!

I know almost nothing about the creators involved in the comic book title TUROK, SON OF STONE. The premise was pretty simple and pure magic for a kid looking for a great fantasy book that was filled with dinosaurs. It involved two Native Americans from a time never actually stated who end up being trapped in an enclosed world where dinosaurs and other supposedly extinct animals hold sway over the land. Turok and Andar do encounter other humans in this world--but they are always more primitive people who lack the superior technology of the bow and arrow, flint tools, and usually the ability to make fire. In addition, the two heroes have located a potent poison that they use on their arrowheads to keep them safe from the hoards of roaming dinosaur predators.

At one time or another I'm pretty sure that I read every issue of TUROK. And while the stories could sometimes grow rather repetitive, this dinosaur buff never got tired of them.

TUROK, SON OF STONE #5, the latest addition to my comic collection.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Carole took this one of Cairo and Lilly while she was changing the sheets in the guest bedroom. I love this photo.

There's something about Cairo.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Andy and Shayna

Well, we visited Carole's mom for Easter Sunday. Carole was too tired to go to church, having been awake for 24 hours by the time we got to her mom's place. When she finally gets to bed she'll have been awake for about 36 hours. Preparing for a camping trip is a major endeavor for us. We do go prepared, I have to say.

We had a good dinner. Somehow I limited myself to modest proportions of food and didn't overdo it. Baked ham, hash-brown potato casserole, green beans, stewed carrots, deviled eggs, yeast rolls, and key lime pie. One glass of wine, several of tea. Yeah. It was pretty darned good.

Andy joined us and brought his girlfriend to meet us. Carole had met Shayna before, but I never had. She's very sweet and it was good to finally meet her.

I spent the lion's share of the day working on the Casita and getting her ship-shape for the looming trip. One of my co-workers who also owns one had discovered a new method of shining up the fiberglass gel-coat. So he gave me directions of what to buy and how to apply it and I had at the task. I was very much impressed with the results. The trailer is shining almost like new!

Andy and Shayna.

The Casita glowing with three fresh coats of shiny stuff!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Me and the Manatee, 2008

In 2008 I was swimming and snorkeling in Blue Spring State Park. I was in the middle of the spring run, about halfway toward the St. John River from the main spring boil. As I was paddling around I turned to see two young manatees swimming directly toward me. These were a pair that had been rehabilitated either from some injury or for having been made orphans due to their mother's deaths (likely at the hands of humans). These reintroduced manatees have radio tracking devices attached to them via cables which are removed after the animals have reached a certain age. Often these manatees are habituated to human contact and seek it out. Thus it was with this pair. They just swam right up to me.

One of the pair grazing on green stuff.

They were very friendly and wanted to meet the new humans.

I couldn't resist touching the flipper as it glided past me.

Goodbye, manatee!

Most people think manatees are just these placid creatures who can barely move. But when they want to put on speed they can really move fast! After a while this pair headed off toward the main spring and the second they decided to haul they were seeming to blaze through the water and vanished upstream at a truly astounding pace.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Wakulla Springs

This was at Wakulla Springs. Inside a state park called Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. I suppose they had to add the name of the guy who owned the land before the state got custody of it. There's an amazing inn there that I would very much like to stay. Carole and I tried to book a room there once but sometimes it's hard to find a vacancy.

There's a high diving platform over one side of the spring. This is apparently one of the deepest fresh water springs on Earth. Even close in to shore it drops off precipitously. The depth at the foot of the diving platform is over forty feet.

And there I go over the edge.

Just enough time to pinch my nostrils shut!


Unfortunately we'll be too far away from this spring to visit on this trip. But Wakulla Springs is very high on my list of places to see again in Florida.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

These are Just Some of My Favorite Springs

I've been visiting the clearwater springs in Florida since I was about twenty years old. I never get tired of them. Because there are so many springs there, Carole and I are far from visiting them all. In fact, we haven't even visited all of the 33 first-magnitude springs there. I think we're only halfway down that particular list. Then there are the many second and third-magnitude springs, many of which are spectacular and worth seeing. We've been to a number of those, also.

We're gearing up for our first big vacation of the year. This one, like many of our other trips, will feature visits to big springs. We'll be seeing two we've spent time at before: Ichetucknee Springs and Salt Springs. Those are two of our favorites and well worth the time we'll spend on them.

Ponce De Leon Springs. This one used to be a county park, but is now a State Park. Not the biggest spring, but we had a great time swimming there.

Rainbow Springs. This one is pretty darned big. I took this composite shot from a high bluff above the head spring. It was once a private amusement park but when Disney World killed off the clientele for many of the mom 'n' pop amusement parks in Florida, the state was able to step in and buy up most of the ones that had scenic, historical, and environmental value. Thus it was with Rainbow Springs.

Manatee Springs, another absolutely striking first-magnitude spring. And, yes, it is frequented by manatees.

This is Blue Springs. Another of my favorites. It's a big hangout for manatees seeking warmer waters when the St. John River gets too cold for them. This is where I was when two manatees swam up to me a few years ago.

Rock Springs Run. This one was also once a private property that ended up in the hands of the State of Florida.

Carole took this shot of me at De Leon Springs. Not to be confused with the much smaller Ponce de Leon Springs. This is another really big spring that was a private amusement park in its day and which the state was able to purchase and convert to a state park.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fanning Springs, Clear and Dark

The main draw for our vacation destinations in Florida are the first magnitude springs that we enjoy. We love to go swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, and wildlife viewing at these amazing places. Our next trip will feature visits to several springs that we either have never seen, or haven't been to for a long time.

Here are some photos of Fanning Springs which we saw two years ago on one of our vacations. Despite the differences, both photos are of the same place. One was taken with the spring clear. The second was a couple of days later when the spring went "dark". That is, the Suwanee River rose high enough so that its darker waters flooded out the spring.

The spring clear (but if you notice, the river is quite high just beyond the spring run).

This was two days later when floodwaters had raised the Suwanee so that it completely inundated Fanning Spring (and every other spring in the area).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Random Shots, Random Thoughts

My two favorite states to ramble around in (other than North Carolina) are West Virginia and Florida. West Virginia gets the edge because of the mountains, of course. And their state park system might not be the slickest one around, but it kicks major league ass in the beauty department. If West Virginia were a woman, it would win Miss Universe. (Just don't tell the judges about those unfortunate mountaintop removal projects.) For about five years we spent at least one, sometimes two vacations every year in West Virginia. Besides the beauty, the other thing about it is that it's generally not crowded. Plus, most of the people are pretty friendly.

When we visited there a few weeks ago I wanted to get a shot from Lindy Point to show them in contrast. One taken in depth of summer about four years ago, and one taken in 2011 in the depths of winter. So here they are.

Lindy Point looking down into the Blackwater Canyon.

And Lindy Point this winter (between heavy snowfalls) from a similar vantage point.

This 'n' right here is one of my favorite North Carolina mountains. It's not a really big mountain, but it's a classic granitic pluton. That is, it formed beneath ground, as volcanic rock, then through metamorphosis changed into granite. As the softer matrix around it eroded away, the granite mass was this case as a 700-foot tall mountain.

If I was ever going to learn any technical rock climbing, I would go here to take one of the courses they offer through either the Sierra Club or REI. The walls on Stone Mountain are not terribly dangerous and with the right equipment are a bit forgiving of minor mistakes. Andy and I talk about going in for a father-son rock climbing expedition there to learn how. Only costs a few hundred bucks. We should do it.

If you click on this image and blow it up, you can see two puny humans climbing the mountain.

Here's a telephoto I took of them. Wish I'd had my new camera back then.

North Carolina does have a few good state parks. But overall, my home state sucks when you compare it to some of the other state park systems that I've enjoyed. While I have a particular love for West Virginia--and they do have a nifty and impressive park system--the state park system in Florida is just uncanny. It's insane is what it is. I've yet to encounter a state that packs as many parks and as much natural beauty into those state parks as the state of Florida. You want beaches? The best. You want fishing? Neptune his own self filled the waters with the best game fish you could want--salt and fresh water, too. There are parks with salt water, fresh water, and mixed brackish water offering the entire range of fishing goodness.

You want forests? They've got virgin forests and forest types you just aren't going to see anywhere outside of Florida. They have beautiful forests that's curl yer toes. And rivers...Jove, the rivers are the best. Fun to float, packed top to bottom, side to side, and end to end with wildlife and scenery. Island parks? Yep. The Keys are hard to beat, and I've been all down in the Caribbean to see those. Gimme the Keys, for access. (Don't shoot me.)

Wildlife? Florida's got it. In spades. Everything from tiny little beach mice all the way up to manatees in the tributaries and whales just off shore. If you can't spot a couple dozen rare birds on a week long trip, you're not lookin'.

For the east coast, nobody beats Florida for state parks. Hell...I doubt anyone but California can top 'em. I hope to find out when I can finally retire and check out the systems from one state to the next.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Waterfall from Last Year

Last winter Jack Thyen and I hiked to see Catawba Falls on the headwaters of the Catawba River near Old Fort, North Carolina. The hike was an interesting one for many reasons, not least of which were the huge number of small waterfalls and cataracts along the way. One spot was the site of an abandoned hydro power station. The dam was breached partially but the dam never removed. Now there's a moderately impressive and relatively dangerous waterfall at the site. But the gem of the hike lies at its upper end: Catawba Falls which remains, for me, one of the prettiest waterfalls I've seen in the last couple of years.

One of dozens of smaller waterfalls along the hike.

Jack taking a photo at the top of the abandoned dam.

A stitched panorama of the dam, falls, and downstream section.

And Catawba Falls. I'd love to go swimming there in the summertime, but I doubt the water flow would be as powerful as it was the day Jack and I went to see it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


When I told my friend and co-worker RL Helms about the trouble I was having with the tire on the Casita he volunteered to meet me at my mother-in-law's place with his welding equipment. If we couldn't coax that damned lug nut off, by Vulcan RL would melt it off!

When he got there we unloaded his welding torch, set up the safety water hose, and RL immediately began trying a few tricks to get that lug nut off. Just to make sure, he tried bashing it off as I'd already done. Then he tried reshaping it and using a socket wrench. Then melting the nut and shaving it off with a cold chisel. None of this work.


He finally realized that he'd have to cut through the lug stud to get the tire off. Firing up the welding torch to high power he succeeded in slicing the hardened steel free of the brake drum, enabling us to remove the rim and tire. Then he disassembled the drum so that we could install a new lug stud that I'd purchased before heading over. That was simple enough and in a few minutes everything was reassembled.

Now I can haul the rim and old tire off to a tire shop to get new tires.


RL fires up the welding torch.

Pausing between tries of alternately heating and trying to remove the old lug nut.

The torch firing away at the lug stud.

The tire free with new stud installed. I foresee primer and new coats of paint on the rim.

Slag: all that remains of the lug nut and old stud.

And another great shot of our Moon. Just as Carole and I were leaving her mom's.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


A decent man tries to be objective about everything, including himself. To this end I’m often self-critical and do my best to not only see my own flaws, but to try to correct them, when possible. I have a tendency to say the first thing that comes to mind when in conversation. I lack a degree of diplomacy and sometimes exhibit a total lack of tact. Some form of Asperger’s Syndrome? I couldn’t say.

But that’s an unintentional faux pas. I’m not generally out to be a total jackass when these things occur. It’s just the unfortunate complications of unadorned honesty.

However, there was a particular moment of complete assholery when I was a young man. It was a moment of being a total jackass. It went like this:

As I recall there were three of us. The brothers Robert and Scott McGregor, and myself. At the time, the McGregor Brothers were my best pals. I was a tad older than they were—I was 19, Robert 17, and Scott 16. We tended to not get into a great amount of trouble, but we did try hard and were obviously quite lucky that nothing really unfortunate befell us.

I’m pretty sure we were already drunk when we entered the theater. Brunswick Georgia had one primitive shopping mall in those days—I can’t recall the anchor stores, but toward one end there was a movie theater with a single screen. Somehow all of us had missed seeing THE EXCORCIST and the film was completing its initial run and there was only one more day to catch it before it vanished. Recall that this was in the days before widely available TV movie networks and the first VHS machines were in only a handful of homes. Video tape machines were far too expensive for me to afford and I didn’t know anyone who owned one. So if we wanted to see this movie, this was our last chance.

Since we wanted the maximum movie-going experience, we stopped by the liquor store and bought some cheap rum. Not the cheapest on the shelf, but pretty cheap. I feel certain we got a couple of bottles of Bacardi and I walked into the theater with a large bottle under my windbreaker and Scott staggered in with a smaller bottle in his sock. It was no trouble at all.

In short order we bought some king-sized cokes, took our seats down front, and waited for the film to begin. Because this was the last showing of a popular film, there was a fair audience for this late night showing, but the theater was hardly crowded, since it was a week-night. Still, a couple of dozen of my fellow Brunswick citizens had wanted to catch this last chance to see THE EXORCIST. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing that they were going to have to put up with a trio of total fucking assholes.

Did I mention that we were already drunk by the time we reached the mall? Well, we were. When we got there, the place was rather bleak—the town’s economy even in the best of times was never great, and late in the evening on a week night the place was really winding down. I doubt if anyone at all noticed that we three had already caught an alcoholic buzz as we wandered toward the mall cinema and purchased our tickets.

After we’d paid to get in and nabbed our sodas, we went into the theater and found good seats and began to consume the rum and Cokes, getting progressively more drunk as the previews unwound on the flickering screen, the audience around us muttering and, I’m sure, beginning to wonder if the three morons sitting front and center were going to be troublemakers.

We were.

In short order the film began. Recall again that this was in simpler days when one did not have to sit through half an hour (or more) of commercials to see the feature film. We saw some previews of coming attractions and then THE EXORCIST started. Everyone else had come to see a good horror movie and to be entertained and thrilled and chilled. Robert, Scott, and I had come to make utter pests of ourselves. We wasted no time at all in laughing at everything that seemed even remotely funny to us. For Robert’s part, he was just drunk. Scott and I were both adamant atheists and we found the mythology and people’s reaction to it to be humorous. We laughed at every moment when other people tended to be shocked.

We were loud.

We were obnoxious.

We were, after half an hour, totally blitzed, screaming obscenities at the screen and commenting endlessly about the silliness of the movie. Here the rest of the folk had come to steal one last chance to see a good film, and they had to sit through the hideous screeching of a trio of drunken apes.

“Those boys have liquor,” I heard one woman exclaim.

Why we were not at least removed from the theater is a mystery to me. Why we were not asked to leave proves that the rest of the audience was either very patient or just frightened of us. I suspect the latter. By the time the movie ended we wandered out of the cinema, allowing everyone else to precede us into the now vacant halls of the mall. No one waited behind corners to bash our heads in or shoot us dead. We certainly deserved some sort of retribution to descend on us.

Weeks later I happened to meet the cousin of one of my best friends. The subject of THE EXORCIST came up. He thought that it was a truly effective horror movie. I related to him how I went with pals to see it while very drunk and laughed my way through the whole film. He looked at me in utter shock.

“That was YOU?!” He actually pointed at me. “I took my sister and her best friend to see that movie because they hadn’t seen it and it was our last chance before it left town. You guys RUINED the movie for us!”

I shrugged. I don’t recall that I apologized or even felt the need to do so.

What an asshole.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Poor Sophie

This is Sophie. She is the cat you will never see. In the many years since Sophie came to live with us, no one outside of family has set eyes on her. She is so high strung and so paranoid that if anyone other than myself, Carole, or Andy enters the house she will immediately hide.

She was this way when we got her. Sophie was about four months old when we brought her home and it took her many weeks before she would show any of us the slightest bit of affection. I don't think her first human family mistreated her intentionally, but she came from a household with several small children and I believe that they were constantly harassing her when she was a tiny kitten. Thus, her first weeks in development were in a highly defensive and fearful attitude.

Sophie's hard to photograph because she's so dark. But occasionally I'll get a good shot of her when she's in bright light or outside on the patio. These days she's starting to go gray. She's an old girl, now, about thirteen I think.

What's that sound?! You never know! What's that grass doing?! Stuff can hide in the grass! Is that a bug??!! What's that bug up to??!! I don't trust bugs!! Is that the wind??!! Was that the wind??!!

Sophies says "Buy Bob's novel, THE LIVING END! It's available in Kindle format too!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Birds and the Moon.

Well, the day was ruined. I'd spent my one day off trying to repair the tires on my travel trailer. Not even "repair" actually. Just get them off so that I could haul the rims over to a tire shop and have new ones put on. For three weeks now I'd been struggling with that chore.

Oh, well.

I returned home, the day burnt out and left like a cold ember. I let the cats out to play in the back yard because they dearly love to go out there and just sit in the sun and wind. It makes their day a bit brighter to be able to do that, and I get a kick out of seeing them soak up the experience.

Cairo (not as bored as she looks).

But after I put them back in the house all safe and cozy, I got out the telephoto lens to see what birds would show up in the trees on the verge of the yard. They tend to stay away, or just flit by if the cats are out. When the feline pals have returned to our house, the birds come a lot closer. Still, I wouldn't get any good shots at all if not for the telephoto lens.

I had a little luck today:

Some kind of red bird. I don't know anything much about birds, so I suppose I'm going to have to learn. One of my co-workers is a bird expert. He'll fill me in.

The same bird in another tree.

This one I know: A female cardinal.

Don't know what this one is. Someone told me, but I've already forgotten.

And this one is just because. Because when I was a kid, pointing the three-inch reflecting telescope that my parents bought me at the moon, I'd have killed to be able to take a photo like this one. Daydreaming of the astronauts getting ready to set down on that planet's surface.