Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Anatomy of a Bad Commute, Part II

Sometimes the universe just opens up on you for a 24-hour period.

This morning on my way to work, the bus I was riding was hit by a car.

The accident was completely the other driver's fault -- a case of the other driver refusing to slow down when coming out of the merge lane. As a result, the bus neatly severed one of the car's outside mirrors, and everything came to a halt.

The other driver -- an older woman with an air of entitled indignation and a handicapped license plate on her luxury sedan -- insisted on calling the police and waiting for them to arrive.

It was another of those "everyone off" moments, only this time we were in the middle of Lake Shore Drive.

As everyone else milled about the scene, she sat in her car, avoiding the wrath of a hundred angry public transportation passengers wondering how they were going to get to work.

And I'm ashamed to say this, but I walked right up to her car and gave her the finger.

It took three buses to pick up all of us, and our accommodations were cozy to say the least. I ended up standing right next to the new driver, who was prompted by another, especially chatty, refugee to regale us with CTA gossip.

He claimed their regular budget crises are all the result of CTA President Ron Humberman wasting tax dollars on his high-powered friends. He called the organization Chicago's political dumping ground, and claimed that CTA actually stands for "cover thy ass."

I am happy to report that my trip home was entirely uneventful.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Anatomy of a Bad Commute

Today has been surprisingly cold and rainy. But because it's spring and I ended up carrying my jacket every evening last week, I decided to forgo another layer this morning.

A co-worker who saw me today commented on it. "Yeah, it's chilly," I replied, "but all I have to do is wait for the bus. I'll be fine."

Thus does many a lesson learned begin, with foolish words and the expectation that just because things were fine last time, and the time before, and the time before that one, too, they will be fine this time as well.

By this evening what had once been a bit chilly and kind of wet had become really cold and pretty rainy. But all I had to do was wait for the bus, right? And it's usually not that long -- less than 15 minutes most days.

To understand what happened next you need to know a few things about the CTA, which is in charge of all the buses and trains in the area.

CTA stands for Chicago Transit Authority, but locals swear it actually means "Can't Transport Anything." I also have a friend who observes that "the CTA is surprised by rush hour twice a day."

It's true that the CTA can be inexplicable, especially during rush hours. For example, where I catch the bus going home from downtown I see several bus routes go by. The 151 travels to parts of town that are nearer and nicer than mine, and it's not unusual to see two or three of them coming up the street together, like a group of Lincoln Park Trixies making for the ladies' room. The 3 goes up and down Michigan Avenue exclusively, and I've noticed those girls prefer to travel in packs, too.

The buses that head further north, like mine, are less frequent and often crowded by the time they arrive. Making matters worse, my bus, the 147, either goes all the way north or ends its route 16 blocks south of my home (and is therefore of little use to me). It may just be my imagination, but lately it seems that the buses stopping short seem to outnumber mine by about two-to-one.

This evening I was lucky, however. A good 147 showed up within a few minutes, and I was even able to get a seat on it.

It was at this point that my troubles (and about a hundred other peoples' as well) began. The bus stalled on Michigan Avenue. Once, then twice, and finally three times, still picking up people and packing them in the whole way. By the time it shuddered its last and finally died, we were at the far north end of Michigan Avenue. The 147 gets on Lake Shore Drive at this point, and doesn't stop again until Foster Avenue some 50 blocks north.

This couldn't have happened at a worse point in the route, or on a worse day. Because the next 147 would be just as crowded as this one, and that might take 10-15 minutes. The one after that would be just as bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the driver said something (I was wearing headphones) because everyone started standing up and heading for the exit door and swearing either under or above their breath. A lot of people just got off and stood at the bus stop just directly outside, as if an empty 147 was going to magically appear and whisk them off to the city's far north side. But I've lived in Chicago over 20 years and I knew better.

I headed back down the bus route, figuring that the further south I went the better my chances of finding another, uncrowded bus.

This went on for several blocks, and all I saw were the 151s and 3s, a parade of twins and triplets, all of them half-full.

Then I saw a 147. My bus. Even though I could see it was full, I was sure I could squeeze on. But apparently the driver didn't think so, because he didn't even bother to slow down for me, the guy without a proper jacket who was waving his arms in all the wind and rain.

Annoyed but undaunted, I walked further south and finally found another 147. There were even two seats left on it, and I commended myself for taking the initiative and not waiting with all the suckers further north. The seat I chose had a damp newspaper in it and, thinking that some slob had used it to cover his or her head and just left it there, I gruffly tossed it aside and sat down.

After a few seconds I felt the seat of my pants get wet.

Given the weather, it was only semi-rational to think that I could be sitting in a puddle of stranger-pee. But it was the first thing that popped into my head. Fortunately, it turned out to be water, leaking from a spot just above the seat and, now, onto the top of my head.

I got up, and I'm sure the people who saw me toss aside the newspaper earlier took some pleasure out of Mr. Big City Guy getting what he deserved, and I suppose they were justified. If the shoe had been on the other foot I certainly would have smirked and thought, "asshole."

I found a spot to stand and spent most of the trip there, which passed without further incident.

Strangely enough, even as long as this post has become, it doesn't seem that bad now. There's a lot that could have made things worse. The bus could have broken down on Lake Shore Drive, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the middle of an eight-lane wilderness. The batteries on my mp3 player could have died. I could have really sat in pee.

One interesting thing to add: The guy standing in front of me on the bus had gigantic pupils -- his eyes were almost entirely black. I figured he'd either just been to the ophthalmologist or was completely tripping his brains out.

That would have made things a whole lot worse, too.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Being Dead" by Jim Crace

Joseph and Celice are zoologists, scientists and academics. They harbor few illusions about the meaning of life or death, seeing both as just two points so far apart on a continuum that they could conceivably be touching somewhere on the other side.

Married for 30 years, they've traveled back to the bay where they met and first made love, when a stranger finds them on the beach and brutally murders both of them.

So begins Jim Crace's Being Dead, which is both a detailed study of what becomes of two corpses left to the elements and a surprisingly tender love story that begins and ends in death.

Crace is a British writer with some half dozen well-regarded novels to his name and, judging from this book, someone who's both horrified and enraptured by humanity's place in a world that cares little for its fate.

The novel is structured as two interwoven halves. The first opens with the murder of Joseph and Celice and catalogs with detached specificity the changes their bodies go through as they first die and then succumb to the forces of nature over the course of six days. The second chronicles their meeting 30 years earlier as graduate students doing fieldwork at the same spot they would later die.

Just as their meeting was not a typical -- or even entirely romantic -- story, nor is their life or death. Crace describes Celice as something of an Amazon, tall and muscular, with a prickly demeanor; Joseph is smaller physically, but the superior one when it comes to intellect and career. These complementary aspects -- or imbalances, depending on how you want to look at it -- combine to make a marriage that is not always happy and passionate, but one built on mutual respect, understanding and, most of all, enduring love.

Reading Being Dead I was often reminded of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, another novel composed of intertwined stories that move forward and back in time and somehow manage to merge so completely that it seems everything is happening to everyone. Eventually the connections between the characters -- and by extension, us -- become so overwhelming that they almost completely obliterate the differences separating them.

Though told on a much smaller scale, Being Dead has the same effect, especially once the couple is noticed missing and their daughter, an unsteady combination of both parents' physical and emotional make-ups, strikes out to discover what's become of them.

Crace's emphasis on the decomposition of Joseph and Celice's bodies is a fitting tribute for two scientists who have always believed that death is simply another stage of life. He follows them in precise, but never gory, detail as their bodies first give way to a great darkness, then become food for crabs and gulls, grow stiff and bloat, and finally begin their return to the earth.

And yet, this clinical tone sets the reader up for some very emotional moments, such as when police are removing Joseph's hand from around his wife's ankle, which he reached out for in the last moments of life. But six days of decomposition have caused their flesh to meld, and the two must literally be torn apart. It's an image that manages to be both sickening and unspeakably sad at the same time.

Crace's British vocabulary did cause me to scratch my head on more than a few occasions. For example, I have no idea what an "unmetalled road" is, though several of them appear throughout the book. But the world he describes -- one in which nothing on earth lasts or matters except for love -- is one I'm familiar with, and it brings me a small measure of comfort to learn I'm not completely alone in it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


2001; directed by Larry Clark; written by David McKenna and Roger Pullis; based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze

When eight teens in suburban Florida kidnapped and beat a classmate on video just so they could post it on YouTube, America was outraged and riveted.

I was too, but less than most, because I'd already seen Larry Clark's Bully.

Clark is also responsible for the equally controversial Kids.
Like its predecessor, Bully is populated by soulless adolescents with too much time and hormones on their hands. The few adults who are present are too clueless and consumed by their own lives to do much more than pretend an interest in their kids' lives, and so they grow wild. But while Kids takes place in a grimly oblivious New York City, Bully is set in a dystopian Florida suburb of middle class tract homes and downscale strip malls.

Based on a true story, Bully revolves around a group of high-school students and dropouts who decide to kill an emotionally, physically and sexually abusive classmate. The cast -- led by Nick Stahl as the bully and the late Brad Renfro as his best friend, with Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner and Michael Pitt -- are a fearless bunch, who meet the demands of the script's blistering story and dialog as well as Clark's own coldly erotic and slightly creepy directorial style.

Disturbing and titillating, shocking and even occasionally funny, the film progresses from one scene of graphic sex, violence and/or drug use to another, yet never feels exploitive. It's more like hanging out with the worst kids in school, watching as they have sex, get high, play video games, and plot to kill the guy everyone hates most.

After inexpertly bludgeoning, stabbing and shooting Stahl's character, everyone discovers just how difficult killing someone actually is. Almost immediately the characters begin unraveling as they struggle with fear, guilt, paranoia and the impulse to avoid responsibility while assigning blame to everyone else in the group.

Bully isn't a horror film, but it is horrifying, with young and attractive monsters who turn out to be something both more and less than human. They're seductive and repellent, ignorant and far too worldly. Lost, angry, cruel, and everywhere.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Where Are My Manners?

Last week Tyler Monfredi, one of the writers I met at the World Horror Conference, posted excerpts from an email discussion we had about the writing process on his blog.

It's an honor to be part of it, especially since other writers in the series include John Hornor Jacobs, Tracy Carbone and Hank Schwaeble.

John, Tracy and Hank all have interesting, revealing and valuable things to say. I mostly ramble on about the infinite number of drafts I have to produce in order to achieve something worthy of professional rejection. But alas, this is my cross to bear and now is not the time to complain.

Apologies to Tyler for not mentioning it here earlier.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The New Me

Because a story of mine was accepted into an anthology...

And because the editors requested an author photo...

And because I really have no decent pictures of myself...

I had the pleasure of getting my mug shot this past Sunday.

I can count the number of good photos I've taken on one hand. This is because, as the saying goes, "the camera never lies." However, the camera can sometimes be convinced not to spill its guts about everything it knows.

In order to do this, you need to start with a good photographer, such as my friend Brian Perkinson. A cinematographer by trade, he also knows his way around a still camera.

Next, add a few beers to both subject and shooter. This helped me go from being completely stiff and uncomfortable to a state that might be described as amazingly life-like.

Finally -- and this really is the crucial ingredient -- mix liberally with Photoshop. Like the camera itself, I won't lie either: this photo has had more work done on it than Joan Rivers.

I'm happy enough with the results. Yes, my eyes are too squinty (the sun was bright!) and I wish I was smiling more. But I think the shot has a certain rakish quality, one that reflects my sense of self. (Either that, or an air of prissy disapproval, which does as well.) At any rate, the photo manages to make me look more attractive than I actually am, which is all I really require.

I think my friend John Hornor Jacobs, after seeing the new photo on this blog, said it best. "You don't look like a jolly child molester any more."

Next up: an author bio that does pretty much the same thing with my life.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Waiting for the Elevator

Yesterday I read this article in The New Yorker, about the secret life of elevators and the story of Nicholas White, who was trapped in one for 41 hours.

Today I read that the security camera video of his ordeal -- originally hosted on The New Yorker's web site -- has become something of an internet sensation. If you haven't seen it, here it is. And if you have, why not take another look? It's odd and compelling stuff.

There's absolutely no reason I shouldn't get in on the some of this fun, too. This blog is about fear, after all, and there's a certain percentage of the population for whom elevators -- and the thought of being trapped in one for 41 seconds, let alone 41 hours -- are nothing short of terrifying.

Despite my own well-documented fear of heights, I'm not one of those people. The thought of hanging hundreds of feet or more above the ground, suspended by only a length of steel cable and the workings of some machinery I know very little about, never crosses my mind. Or if it does, it doesn't bother me.

(This is because I can't see the yawning chasm just below my feet. Also, because there's a floor, a ceiling and four solid walls between me and it. Likewise, I'm not bothered by being inside the high floor of a building, either. I worked on the 42nd floor of the Aon Center for almost five years, and would routinely walk right up to the windows and gaze straight down at the street below. But get me on a balcony on the same floor and... well, you couldn't get me on to a balcony on the same floor.)

No, it's not the height or the possibility of falling or even the confined space of elevators that bother me. It's being so close to all those people.

At any rate, this poor guy was trapped for 41 straight hours -- it ruined his whole weekend. And the rest of his life, too, if the article is to be believed.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It's Our Fault

Friday at approximately 4:36 AM the Midwest was rocked by a rare but significant earthquake.

Measuring 5.2, with its epicenter about 38 miles north-northwest of Evansville, Indiana, news reports claimed it could be felt as far as 900 miles away.

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I've felt only one earthquake my entire life. It was some time in the late '80s. I was at home, sitting in my living room, when I felt something gently shaking my chair back and forth. It was almost as if a very large semi-truck was rumbling by right outside my door.

Despite all the dramatic news coverage on this latest quake, I managed to sleep right through it. A terrible, dual irony, since I probably would have enjoyed it, and have laid awake at precisely that time on countless nights.

I may still get my chance, however, because seismologists say the New Madrid Fault could make a big move pretty much any time. The New Madrid Fault is responsible for what is considered one of the largest earthquakes in American history, striking twice on December 16, 1811, then again on January 23, 1812. The final, and strongest quake, occurred on February 7, and aftershocks continued for weeks afterward.

The quakes created new lakes -- such as Tennessee's Realfoot Lake -- altered the flow of the Mississippi River, and delivered strong movement over approximately 50,000 square miles. For comparison, the San Francisco's earthquake of 1906 traveled only 6,000 square miles. Experts now estimate the New Madrid quake's strength at 8.0.

If and when it hits, scientists say the movement will be strong enough to shake our groove things all the way north to Milwaukee. And for our friends further south -- say, Little Rock, Arkansas -- the effects will be especially pronounced.

That is, if the Yellowstone supervolcano doesn't get us all first.

This has been your Good Scare for the day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Already Dead" by Charlie Huston

I don't particularly care for the hard-boiled genre of crime novels, and it probably goes without saying that I'm no fan of vampires either. Yet I loved Charlie Huston's Already Dead, which is a smart and gritty combo of both. Who knew?

Uber-agent Donna Bagdasarian, that's who. She recommended Charlie Huston to me over drinks at Love is Murder. (Donna, if you're reading, kisses!) I'd never heard of the guy, but after telling her about my own novel, she pretty much put it on my required reading list. What can I say? Donna's powers of persuasion should be legendary.

As should Charlie Huston, if this book is any indication of what he's up to.

The place: New York City. The time: Not quite yesterday, not yet tomorrow. Vampires inhabit the city in the thousands, organized into competing guilds that are just this side of tumbling into all-out war. Joe Pitt -- blood-thirsty private eye -- is caught in the middle of it all.

The plot is pure urban noir. An underage heiress has run away from home and her parents want Joe to track her down through Manhattan's lower levels of Hell. There's another job that Joe is trying to finish as well -- locating the source of a zombie-creating bacteria that's somehow running loose in the streets. Then there's his HIV-positive girlfriend, who loves Joe but won't fuck him, and Joe's own complicated relationship with the various Vampyre cults and all their competing interests. Not to mention Joe's own conflicted feelings about what he is and the things he has to do to survive.

It's a complicated tale full of twists and turns, and I probably would have placed Already Dead into my own personal remainder bin if it weren't for the book's swift, engaging style and Joe's own infectious sense of snark. Even with a broken jaw and tied up by thugs, the guy manages to toss off one-liners like candy from a parade float. I couldn't help but like him. He's smart, he's brave despite being sick and tired of the whole damned mess, and he wants desperately to do the right thing, even when he isn't sure what that is but is certain it'll only get him into more trouble.

The portions that struck me the most, the ones I'd read this book again for, were those describing the various strata of Vampyre society -- particularly the ascetic Enclave, who seek enlightenment through starvation -- the tale of Joe's long-ago initiation into the life of the Undead, and his ongoing efforts to survive it one night at a time.

Fans of the vampire genre should check out Already Dead if they haven't already. (Along with its sequels, No Dominion and Half the Blood of Brooklyn.) Un-fans, like me, should consider it as well, because there are delights here for even the most strident Van Helsing.

And the cover is kick-ass, too.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Army of Gas-Masked Children

I've been saving this photo for a day when I didn't have anything else to say.

Today is that day.

I suggest you click on it in order to enjoy its amazing creepiness full-size. Nothing less will do. Go ahead. I'll wait.

There's something about a gas mask -- particularly this model and vintage -- that is just so completely dehumanizing. Without the gas masks, all you have is a large group of school-age children arranged for a portrait on a fairly cloudy day. With it, you have an army of insect-like creatures massed and ready for plunder beneath a glowering sky.

I think the man in the uniform just right of center is especially horrific. The man to the right of him, the one in the baggy jumpsuit, is also nightmare-worthy.

And check out those two little scamps hiding behind the tiny cannon in the lower-left corner!

I love this photo. I wish the covers of horror novels could look more like this.

Instead of like this.
(With all apologies to L.L. Smith, and every other author who's been saddled with a similar cover by their publisher.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

"30 Days of Night"

2007; directed by David Slade; written by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson; based on the comic book 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith

Friends and long-time readers of this blog know I think vampires are so tired they can barely drag themselves out of their coffins of an evening. That's why I skipped 30 Days of Night when it came to theaters last October.

But on Friday, with the film staring me in the face on Pay-per-View and nothing else to watch, I decided to give it a try. The story does have an interesting twist: it takes place in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in America, which (according to the film) goes without sunlight for an entire month each winter.

This single insight conjured up all kinds of fantasies in my imagination about the film. I pictured a small town in a hostile environment, its citizens caught in a month-long siege against the forces of nature, darkness and the undead. And while the film satisfied these expectations, it also steadfastly refused to exceed them in any way whatsoever.

Josh Hartnett stars as Barrow's too young-looking sheriff, who's trying to keep a lid on things while most of the town's population vacates it before darkness falls. Left behind with him are his younger brother and grandmother, a pot-growing cancer patient; a few assorted townspeople with various skills which will come in handy later on, his ex-wife, who missed the last plane out of town, and a mysterious stranger who predicts death and destruction for everyone left behind.

No sooner does the sun set than the vampires -- a group of normally dressed folks with ragged choppers and slightly feline features -- descend upon the town, wreaking havoc and drinking their fill of the townspeople's blood.

It's after this initial string of attacks -- when Hartnett and his band have set up camp in the attic of an abandoned home -- that the story fast-forwards a number of days, a technique used throughout the rest of the film which, frankly, caused me to say, "Huh?"

In the screenwriters' defense, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to show a little bit of every day during Barrow's month of darkness. In a 90-minute film, that would leave only three minutes of screen time for each day. But neither is the chosen tactic of skipping huge swaths of time -- seven, nine, ten days at a stretch -- an ideal solution. By only showing the story's high points -- i.e., the action scenes -- I found myself more involved with wondering what happened during the gaps and less interested in what was unfolding on screen.

Perhaps a better approach lies somewhere between these two extremes. With some glimpses of the day-to-day (or night-to-night, if you prefer) life of the townspeople, I might have been able to develop a deeper understanding and sympathy with these characters, and share in their sense of desperate isolation.

As it is, the film devolves into one noisy action sequence after another, with barely a moment taken to reflect on what's happened or the lives that are lost. It left me feeling disengaged from the characters and their story and, frankly, bored. In fact, it was at some point toward the final third of the film that I actually fell asleep, despite all the noise and sturm und drang.

It was Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire that first injected new blood into the vampire mythos some thirty years ago, and it seems that every film and book released since has either tried to cash in on Rice's original vision or one-up her in the reinvention game. 30 Days, with its unusual setting and intriguing premise, was obviously trying to accomplish the latter. Unfortunately, it failed to do so, leaving me to wish that the bloodthirsty undead would just die already. At least for a little while.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"The Ruins"

2008; directed by Carter Smith; written by Scott B. Smith, based on the novel The Ruins by Scott Smith

I've been looking forward to The Ruins ever since hearing late last year that it was being adapted for the screen. The novel was one of the best "horror" books I read in 2006 -- or any year -- and I was hoping the film would, somehow, be as intelligent and relentless as its source material.

The film didn't disappoint me, not much, despite what the majority of critics are saying. Yeah, some of them are faulting it for being too similar to other tourists-in-trouble films like Turistas (which I haven't seen) and Wolf Creek (which I have) and Shrooms (which I reviewed a while back). And they may have a point. But for someone who tries to avoid the stuff that's obviously born of schlock and greed, The Ruins was an enjoyable trip.

Tourists-in-trouble ought to be enough to tip you off to the film's premise. Two young, nubile couples vacationing in Mexico have tired of their pre-packaged vacation and yearn to experience something off the beaten path. An attractive German provides them the opportunity to do so via a hand-drawn map from his brother, who's gone off with a young, nubile archaeologist to explore an ancient Mayan temple. They pick up a sixth group member -- a Greek named Dimitri, to provide an early victim and hope for eventual rescue from his friends who may or may not be following in a day or two -- and strike out for adventure.

Trouble starts as soon as they arrive, and once gun- and bow-and-arrow-wielding natives have backed the group up against the temple and into the vines choking it, they're unable to leave. There's a terrific moment at this point in the film, where one of the women (Jena Malone) throws a clump of the vines at the group in frustration. She hits a young boy who's looking on, and the natives' leader promptly shoots the boy in the head. It's a shocking development that proves to the group -- and audience -- just how serious the natives are about keeping them there.

After Dimitri takes an arrow to the chest and a gun blast to the head, the rest scrabble up the temple stairs in terror. At the top they discover the remainders of the previous explorers' camp, much it covered with the same vines they saw at the base which looked -- at least to me -- like silvery-green pot plants.

Through a combination of misadventure, attempts to save themselves, and the vines' own blood-thirsty instincts, the group is picked off one-by-one while also suffering from hunger and dehydration. Despite everything at risk, the film does lag a bit in this lengthy middle section. But the episodes of amateur surgery to save one character's life -- and to remove the vines that have begun appearing beneath the skin of another -- manage to liven things up and are some of the most cringe-inducing scenes of gore I've seen for some time.

Some readers saw an Iraq war metaphor in the book, about what happens when thoughtless Americans stumble into a land and culture they know little about, with nothing to protect themselves except for delusions of entitlement. This is, sadly, present in the film in only the barest of sub-text, and would have helped bring depth to an otherwise straight-ahead tale. The book also played on the main characters' suspicions and jealousies of one another, too. Again, this is something only somewhat present in the film.

The film skips out on the book in another, more profound, way. In the novel the vines are completely lethal, something the natives are desperate to keep quarantined, and it leads to all the characters' grisly end. But the film version allows one character to escape, though we don't see anything that happens afterward. I can only believe this change was ordered for two reasons: 1.) To satisfy Hollywood's unending need for some kind of a happy ending, and 2.) Create an easy set-up for a possible sequel.

Like some vacations, The Ruins wasn't the dream getaway I was hoping for, but it wasn't a completely wasted trip to the theater, either. Like a lot of travel, it provided just enough enjoyment to make me want to go somewhere else again.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Religious Sexcapades in Texas

Yesterday, after calling a family violence hotline with a borrowed cell phone, a pregnant 16-year-old girl escaped from the Yearning for Zion Ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Eldorado, Texas.

It's a gleaming, well-ordered place where the church members made cheese and cement to support their lifestyle, and committed some bizarre atrocities in the name of God.

The girl is one of 50-year-old Dale Barlow's seven wives, and the story she's telling authorities -- of captivity, polygamy, and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of older men -- is nothing less than shocking.

Raised in the church compound her entire life, the girl was told by church elders that she'd be forced to cut her hair, wear make-up and have sex with different men in the outside world. But apparently, those options became less horrifying to her than continuing to live in a closed society where she was already a mother at 16 and routinely beaten by her spiritual husband while his other wives looked on.

I'm rarely surprised by the lengths to which certain religions will go in order to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and the rites they observe as part of their worship. But I'm endlessly fascinated by how often those same religions will organize themselves so that men can enjoy sex with multiple, underage women. It's like the guys all got together and decided the answer to "What would Jesus do?" is "He'd hit that."

The compound was raided yesterday. Authorities removed 416 children, many of which were unable to identify their biological parents, and have placed them into protective custory. Nearly 140 women have left on their own. You can bet all of them have been traumatized, are traumatized now, and will be traumatized for some time by their experiences.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

And Baby Makes Four

On March 11, 2008, Lali Singh entered the world with two faces. The baby is doing fine, blinking both sets of eyes, and crying and nursing from both mouths.

Her parents, Vinod and Sushma Singh, live in the north Indian village of Saini Sunpura, where Lali's arrival is being celebrated as the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess of valor, Durga.

And this, I think, is a blessing. Born anywhere else, Lali's arrival might have been an occasion for shock and horror. In a country like the U.S., her parents may have even decided not to go through with the delivery.

I post this because this type of thing fascinates me. I was born into a normal body, and know how difficult life can be for someone with all the right parts in all the right places. I can't imagine what those born into a different kind of body feel or think or experience. But I believe they all have amazing stories to tell.

I'd love to follow this one in the years to come. To discover if there's one person or two inside Lali's remarkable head. To learn if both mouths will learn to speak, and what they'll have to say. To find out just what Lali's life is going to be like.

I wish her well.

Absolut Bad Judgment

This is the ad that's had Absolut vodka in a pot of hot water the past few days and has some groups calling for a boycott.

Though the ad was intended only for Mexico (curious that it used English in that case), Absolut has been playing defense to an outraged chorus since it reached American eyes.

An Absolut spokesperson said of the ad, "In no way was it meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues."

And yet, it does all those things so well.

What's horrifying here? First, one or several people at Absolut's Mexican ad agency -- Teran/TBWA -- are probably packing their desks at this very moment. Probably a couple in Absolut's marketing department, too. I can't really feel sorry for them. How would this ad go over if the borders were Israel and Palestine? Or Germany overtaking Europe? You can bet this one isn't going into anyone's portfolio, all arguments about the value of free publicity aside.

Second, even after offering a sincere and heartfelt apology, I believe Absolut can look forward to a decreased market share in the U.S. for some time to come. I don't think the fat lady's anywhere near singing with this one just yet.

And finally, Absolut and its parent company was recently sold to French spirit maker Pernod Ricard SA, under a deal reached just last week! Bet they're glad to have this one in their portfolio, too.

But what the hell do I care? I'm a Smirnoff man myself.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Day 17 - Denver, CO to West Des Moines, IA

The Long Drive

This was the day I set out to drive the 1000 miles between Denver and Chicago. But I only made it as far as West Des Moines.

That's 700 miles for those of you planning your own road trip.

It was a lot of driving, without a lot to comment on. Nebraska, however, was not as flat and boring as some make it out to be. As a matter of fact, it's quite nice when compared to a place like, say, Wyoming.

But I made it to West Des Moines, and spent the night at a Ramada Inn, and was sorry not to be home but glad to be somewhere that was clean and dry and decorated in a bland, inoffensive style.

Road trips really can help you learn to appreciate the simple things in life.


From my buddy John Hornor Jacobs, swiped from him on a bleary Sunday morning at World Horror Con 2008.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Good News at a Great Time

While I was at World Horror I learned that a short story of mine has been accepted for an anthology.

The editors have requested my discretion -- they'll be releasing the table of contents and author list in April or May -- so unfortunately I can't mention the story or anthology's title at this time.

I'm honored to be included.

Day 16 - Ogden, UT to Denver, CO

Big Truck Country

Dick Cheney is from Wyoming, and this should have been my first clue that I would neither feel welcome or enjoy my time there, even if I was just driving through it. But I had no idea it would go down as the single worst driving experience of my 4000-mile journey.

Days earlier, when I told people at World Horror that I'd be driving from Salt Lake City to Denver, they all recommended taking I-70 east, through Utah, instead of I-80, through Wyoming. But I'm an Iowa boy, and grew up with I-80, so I felt I could trust it.

Southern Wyoming borrows a lot of charm from northern Utah, but once those first 30 miles or so are in your rearview mirror, it takes on a whole other feel.

The first indication were the great plumes of smoke or steam I saw rising off in the distance. They looked like huge fires, burning somewhere just past the horizon, but are turned out to be a cluster of factories.

Second, it seems Wyoming doesn't believe in plowing its roads, because even though it had snowed two days earlier, the interstate in Wyoming was covered in snow and ice and sand and dirt.

Third, semi-trucks outnumber regular cars by about 20:1 on this stretch of road. Now I know, from all the billboards I've seen on this trip, that "Trucks bring good things!" -- things from faraway places where wages are lower, things that are vital to our always-low-prices, disposable culture and unsustainable way of life. And I know semi-drivers are regular people just like you and me who have a job to do and only want to get it done so that they can go home to their fat wives and ugly children.

But the trucks in Wyoming were some of the worst-behaved road bullies I've ever encountered. Sometimes they passed me going 80 miles an hour; at others they pulled out in front of me with no warning and drove just 45. And they traveled together in packs of 40 or 50 at a time, going down the road in long, road-hogging lines, looking like the world's fastest, ugliest parade.

And every time I found myself beside or behind one of these trucks, its tires threw up great sprays of the aforementioned snow and ice and sand and dirt, along with a few rocks. Believe me, this shit will mess up your car and leave its hood looking like the surface of the moon.

All of this goes on for about 350 miles, leading up to and away from the continental divide. It's a white-knuckled driving adventure not for the faint of heart. Or me. Ever, ever again. If I ever head west again, I will drive around Wyoming. It was that bad.

On the bright side, however, I did find a state to hate more than Texas.

A few miles past Laramie -- which is a gray, muddy pit populated by people who seem well adapted to the environment -- I turned on to I-25, south to Denver. Almost immediately, the sky and road cleared, and from there it was just a couple hours more to the home of my former college roommate, Daren, and his wife, Becky.

Daren and Becky were great hosts, and provided me with a terrific meal along with no small amount of vodka, which I definitely needed. Unfortunately, I got sick the next morning -- the achy, icky, sore throat, stuffy nose kind of sick. Not wanting to pass it on to them, I left to head further east.

Truth be told, I was more than a little homesick as well, and thought I might be able to drive the thousand miles between me and Chicago in one day. But this did not happen.

Day 15 - Ogden and Park City, UT

Ultra Utah

Years ago in Chicago there used to be a TV ad for an Indiana amusement park. At the end, the fun-loving crow who'd guided viewers through all the adventures awaiting them would alight next to the park's logo, lean against it, and say, "There's more to Indiana than corn!"

Which is my roundabout way of saying there's more to Utah than what I've already discussed.

After vacating the World Horror premises, I drove pal John Hornor Jacobs to the airport, then continued north to Ogden, where a former (I won't use the word "old" in order to protect both of our dignities) college roommate currently lives.

Let me just say I love me some Scottie Barnard. His mom, Karen -- who also lives in Ogden -- is a lovely person as well. And they were delightful hosts during the 36 hours or so I stayed with them in their home nestled beneath the mountains.

Sunday night they treated to me to a great dinner at a local barbecue chain called Good Wood, and on Monday Scott took the wheel to deliver a custom tour.

First stop, the SLC Public Library, an incredible public space designed by Moshe Safdie, architect of the still amazing Habitat 67 in Montreal. The building, with its dizzying atrium and gravity-defying staircases is filled with light and air, and brings to mind some of the other high-flown adventures I've encountered on this trip.

I love that it's a contemporary building. Seeing it makes me grieve anew the opportunity Chicago threw away when it chose Thomas Beeby's design for our own new main library back in the 1990s. Whereas Chicago's library purposefully looked back to designs from the previous hundred years for inspiration, Salt Lake City obviously has its eye on the future.

That doesn't mean there's no room for cozy touches, like this trio of fireplaces that occupy the far corner of all the floors and resemble a column of flame when viewed from the exterior. While we were there, Scott said a bomb was set off a bomb at this spot in the library a few years ago.

The library is designed so that the more public -- and noisy -- areas are clustered on the lower floors, so that the building grows more peaceful and quiet as you reach the higher levels. It even has a small shopping center nestled on its ground floor that extends out onto the plaza surrounding the building's back area.

While the main library occupies a soaring space, Safdie wisely located the children's section in an intimate area of the basement. Though the children's section can be opened to the full height of the atrium above, it can also be closed off by a series of fabric panels, shown here. (When I asked how the panels were moved back and forth, thinking there was some mechanism there I couldn't detect, the librarian wryly told me it was done with a pole. Judging from her expression, I'm guessing it's not her favorite part of the job.)

The library's front arched wall continues outside the building, to create an elevated walking path to and from the plaza that was, unfortunately or not, closed that day due to snow. But here's a pic of Scott posing in front of it just the same.

Note Scott's clothing for just a moment, and let me comment on an odd Utah phenomenon: when it's cold, it's not really cold. Not like it gets in Chicago. Sure, it's crisp, the way apple cider and fall leaves can be crisp, but the chill doesn't cut down to the bone the way it does here. Everyone I asked about it credited the mountains and Utah's dry air, then went on a tear about how much lotion they go through in the course of a week. Still, it seems a small price to pay for the privilege of walking around in a flannel shirt when the thermometer swears it's only 37 degrees. But I digress.

Here's a professionally taken picture of the back of the library, showing it off to better advantage than I ever could. Well done, Salt Lake City!

From here, it was on to Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival and an odd race of blonde cougars in down vests and Ugg boots that stalk the city streets. It was Scott who pointed out that all the women in Park City look alike, and he was right. I should have taken a picture or two, but was just too struck by their sun- and snow-kissed uniformity to even think of pulling out my camera.

But Park City is great, and after walking up and down its small but obviously well-moneyed strip, I can imagine how the Hollywood types eat it up as some exotic outpost. In some ways, it reminded me of Galena, Illinois, another hilly, former mining town that has since been turned into an historic outdoor mall.

Yeah, we did some shopping, and when it was done we returned, tired but happy, to Ogden. Scott's mom went to see her beloved Utah Jazz play, and Scott and I made dinner and watched Jackass 2.5 on demand. It was almost like being at home, something I was beginning to miss something fierce.

The next day I planned to make the drive to Denver to see another former college roommate. But I had a big adventure awaiting me throughout Wyoming first. One I wasn't going to enjoy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Day 10-14 - Salt Lake City, UT

World Horror 2008

This was my first real writer's conference. One day at Love is Murder doesn't really compare.

Writer's conferences are events where new and up-and-coming writers go to meet well-known authors, agents, editors and publishers, as well as other writers like them. And where fans and everyone else can rub elbows with the big names during whatever precious time is left. The whole thing runs on ethyl alcohol and everyone enjoys a wonderful ride, me included.

Based on excellent advice given to me by Marcus Sakey, I parked myself in the hotel bar on Thursday night and bought people drinks. I met Horror Library editor and writer R.J. Cavender, Cutting Block Press's Boyd Harris, the dangerously funny Cody Goodfellow, R.B. Payne celebrating a recent acceptance, Hal Bodner, author of Bite Club; re-met Tracy Carbone, and had a terrifically long talk with John Paul Allen, author of Gifted Trust and Monkey Love. I saw Martel Sardina and Eric Cherry from Chicago's Twilight Tales. And none of them promised me money in exchange for a link on my blog, though I couldn't blame you for thinking they did. I didn't get home until almost three in the morning, and for an introverted misanthrope who's usually in bed by ten, I think I did okay.

The next day I went to a few late panels, attended the first half of my workshop with Mort Castle, then went back to my room and spent the rest of the night there, nursing myself with take-out from the Crown Burgers across the street from my hotel and liberal amounts of HBO.

But by Saturday I was back in fine form, and the highlight of the day was the second half of my workshop with Mort Castle. Mort is a dark fiction legend who lives in the Chicago area, a terrific talent and resource to have nearby. Mort has written just about everything, and seen just about everyone try to write it, too.

And yet, rather than being jaded or harsh, Mort is one of the most serene and supportive teachers I've ever had. We wrote some short pieces after the first half and read them to the group the next day. Some were better than others, but Mort found something positive to say about each one of them and, better still, made it sound completely genuine and believable.

At one point Mort held his thumb and forefiger just a little bit apart and peered at us all from between the space. "You need this much talent," he said, then opened his arms wide and finished. "And this much ambition."

How many times have I said that ambition always trumps talent? (Only because it's obvious ambition rules the world, not because I possess these qualities in those proportions.) Mort, I love ya. Thanks for a great workshop.

It was during Mort's workshop that I also met John Hornor Jacobs, a hella talented guy who also knows one or two things about advertising. That's him on the right, and that's us on Sunday, craving bacon and eggs the way zombies crave brains. Mort's workshop is also where I met Tyler Monfredi and Petra Miller, two more promising writers who made the conference a lot of fun.

Throughout the con I also spent a lot of time with editor and writer Elizabeth Blue. I don't know if she'd appreciate me posting this picture of her or not, but I think she looks glam, despite Salt Lake City's dry, cold, unpredictable but generally shitty weather. I can't wait to read some of her stuff.

And those, unfortunately, are the only two pictures I have from World Horror 2008. Why I didn't take at least a hundred more is beyond me now, but it might have had something to do with not wanting to look like a total fanboy.

Which I think I did with Kurt Dinan. I saw him coming out of a panel and just shouted his name after recognizing it from reading Longtime Gone last month in Chizine.com. We talked for a bit, but Kurt was maybe a bit leery of my enthusiasm. Nice guy, though. I'll try to behave myself better next time.