The Boy in the Box and the Girl in the Closet

Mystery Thriller Cold Case Blog Hop

What would you do if you found a body? You’d tell the police, right? Maybe not. Maybe if you’d been up to something illicit you might keep quiet about it.

That’s what happened to two separate young men in Philadelphia in 1957. The first man ventured into a wooded area off Susquehanna Road in the Fox Chase neighborhood on a chilly February day to check on his muskrat traps. The woods were a popular dumping ground for trash and old appliances. Sometimes items were discarded there that could be cleaned up, tinkered with and repaired. As his boots crunched through fallen leaves he spotted a large cardboard box. He looked inside to see if it contained anything interesting.

It did. At first he thought it was a doll. Then he took a closer look and saw it was a small child who was clearly dead. The trapper promptly left, thoroughly rattled, unwilling to tell the authorities what he’d found because he was trapping illegally and he feared they would confiscate his traps

Two days later, on February 25, another young man was in the woods. His purpose was to spy on girls at a nearby boarding school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. It was known in the area that the girls had been sent to the school because they were “troubled.” That was a catch-all phrase used in those days, when any adolescent behavior deviating from the norm sparked fears of what newspapers and magazines trumpeted as “juvenile delinquency.” The preoccupation with out-of-control teens loomed large in the public’s imagination, fueled by images of the switchblade-carrying high school students in the film Blackboard Jungle and in the person of the surly, stolen-car-racing character portrayed by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

If the young man thought he’d get a thrill by peeping on girls who were rebellious and wild he was in for a shock when he discovered the box. Like the trapper, he was reluctant to tell the police, knowing he’d be asked what he was doing there. Two days later he contacted the authorities, after wrestling with his conscience and having heard reports on the radio about a four-year-old girl named Mary Jane Barker who was missing from Bellmawr, NJ, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The trapper followed suit.

Sadly, Mary Jane Barker would be found dead on March 3, 1957. She was huddled in a closet of a house under construction, two blocks from her own home. The house belonged to the aunt and uncle of one of her playmates, six-year-old Maria Freitta. A black cocker spaniel puppy belonging to Maria Freitta that had gone missing at the same time as Mary Jane was in the closet with her. The puppy bounded out, alive and well, when Maria, who had gone to the house with her aunt and uncle, opened the door.

Maria’s joyful reunion with her pet was short-lived. The puppy was euthanized and its stomach contents examined to find out if it had been fed recently. The idea seemed to be that someone could have put the puppy in the closet with Mary Jane, and was concerned enough about its welfare to feed it. That seems unlikely, since the door opened from the inside by turning a small latch. If someone had put Mary Jane there, how could they be sure she couldn’t get out? From marks on the plaster walls and on the door it was evident she’d tried desperately to escape.

According to the Camden County coroner Mary Jane had not been sexually molested, or undergone any kind of physical harm. The conclusion was that she had wandered into the house to play, got trapped in the closet and died of starvation. Her death was ruled a tragic accident.

We can only imagine how Maria Freitta felt about discovering her friend’s body and then having her puppy taken away and euthanized. Whether the current occupants of the well-kept brick ranch house on Second Avenue know about the horror that occurred in the front bedroom closet is unknown.

Would you want to know if it had happened in your house?

In Fox Chase, police arrived at the scene and found the box marked ‘Furniture’ and ‘Fragile, Handle With Care.’ It originally held a baby bassinette. Inside was a little blue-eyed white boy. He was naked and wrapped in a faded flannel blanket. He had all his baby teeth and had been circumcised. His age was estimated at being about four or five.

According to laboratory tests he had not been sexually assaulted. He was malnourished and his body was covered with bruises. His fingernails and toenails were neatly clipped and his dark blond hair had been recently cut, judging by hair clippings clinging to the body. He had surgical scars on his ankle and his groin, the scar on his groin resembling one made in hernia surgery. The one on his ankle appeared to be a “cut-down” for the purpose of exposing a vein for a blood transfusion.

The child had been a patient in a hospital. That’s where I would have looked, if I’d been investigating the case. Hospitals keep records, one of which might have identified the boy. Perhaps detectives tried that and failed to come up with anything. By now, after the passage of more than six decades, whatever records there may have been were probably destroyed as the result of routine data clearance.

The boy’s hands and feet were wrinkled, as if he had been submerged in water before he died. The cause of death appeared to be several violent blows to the head. His esophagus contained a dark substance, suggesting that he had vomited shortly before he died. Other than that, there was no clue as to what his final moments had been like, or who had killed him, and why.

Sixty-four years later his identity is still unknown, despite untiring efforts by police and civilian sleuths. He has become known as the “Boy in the Box,” or “America’s Unknown Child.”

The bassinet box he was found in at first seemed like a promising lead. Investigators traced the point of sale to a J.C. Penney store in Upper Darby, PA. It was one of a shipment of a dozen bassinets received on Nov. 27, 1956 and sold for $7.50 between Dec. 3, 1956 and Feb. 16, 1957. Although the store kept no records of individual sales, eleven of the purchasers came forward when they learned of the search.

FBI fingerprint technicians found no usable prints on the box. It was a dead end.

The blanket the boy was wrapped in proved to be just as frustrating. It had a geometric pattern of diamonds and rectangles in green, brown, rust and white. It was made from cheap cotton flannel and had been recently washed and mended. Analysis at the Philadelphia Textile Institute determined it was manufactured either at a factory in Swannanoa, North Carolina, or Granby, Quebec. Identical blankets had been produced by the thousands. The police were never able to find where it had been sold.

Another dead end.

A royal blue corduroy man’s cap with a leather strap and a buckle in the back was found about seventeen feet from the box. The label inside led police to Robbins Eagle Hat & Cap Company in Philadelphia. The proprietor confirmed it was one of twelve caps she made at some point prior to May 1956. She recalled that particular cap because the purchaser – a blond man in his late twenties – had returned a few months later to have the strap sewn on.

This was a promising development. Furthermore, the proprietor told the detectives that the customer resembled photographs they showed her of the boy in the box. That must have gotten their hopes up, but seconds later their hopes were crushed when she told them she had no record of the blond man’s name or address.

Another dead end.

At first, police thought the boy in the box might be Stephen Craig Damman. He was 34 months old when he disappeared from outside a Long Island, NY supermarket on October 31, 1955, while waiting for his mother to finish shopping. Both boys had blue eyes and a small scar under their chin. Damman, however, had fractured his left arm at one time. X-rays showed the boy in the box had no broken bones.

Stephen Craig Damman is still missing.

Five months after he was found, the boy in the box was buried in a potter’s field. Detectives who worked on the case pooled their money to purchase a headstone, its inscription reading: “Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy.”

The boy’s body was exhumed three times, in 1998, 2000, and 2001, in order to collect DNA samples. The third attempt produced a satisfactory DNA profile, but as yet no living relatives have been found.

The boy in the box would be close to 70 by now, if he had lived. His body now rests in Philadelphia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery, where visitors to the grave sometimes leave toys and stuffed animals. His killer is most likely dead. Someone, somewhere, might know who the boy was, but if they do, they’re not telling.

Next, mystery/thriller writer Lance Frost brings you the case of golf pro Sarah Hunter whose 1986 murder remains unsolved.

Mystery Thriller Cold Case Blog Hop Sarah Hunter Unsolved

A Conversation with Sarah Walker

Today’s guest is Sarah Walker. Sarah is a professor of Anthropology at California State University at San Marcos. In addition she makes beautiful glass art and is a fiction writer. Her short horror story, “The Snake Beneath My Skin,” appears in Test Patterns, from Planet X Publications, edited by Duane Pesice. It takes place in Mexico and involves an American who makes his living transporting illegal drugs. He finds out, too late, that there are even worse fates than the terrible punishments meted out to those who cheat the cartels.

Sarah’s most recent literary project was co-editing the folk horror anthology,  A Walk in A Darker Wood, along with Duane Pesice and Gordon B. White. If you enjoyed Midsommar and The Wicker Man you’ll find it worth reading. It’s available from Amazon.

And now for the questions!

Q. In the introduction to A Walk in A Darker Wood you say your childhood home was a former silver mill in the middle of a forest in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. How did that come about?

A. My father and mother moved to Colorado in the late 1960s or early 1970s when my dad took a professorship in cultural anthropology at CU in Boulder. They were looking for a place outside of town and stumbled upon this old silver mill with some land around it. Back then, no one wanted to live that far up in the mountains. We used to get snowed in on occasion and were unable to get to town. One time there was a blizzard and we ran out of dog food and had to feed our dogs rice. Now everyone wants to live up there, but when I was a kid we were in the middle of nowhere.

Q. As a graduate teaching fellow in the Anthropology department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, you took part in a project that used Geographic Information Science or GIS, to research trade routes in an area called Jalieza in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. From what I understand GIS is like a window into the past in that it uses geospatial technology to examine physical details of a landscape in order to draw conclusions about what life in ancient settlements was like. Is that correct? Would you care to elaborate on what you learned about Zapotec society during the Late Classic period?

A. Sure! What I learned more than anything is that the Americas were just as complex politically and as “advanced” as any European society was. The people I studied, the Zapotec, had a state-level society at Monte Alban (modern day Oaxaca City) in 500 B.C. They had elites fighting over political and economic power, systems of taxation, temple complexes, apartments and more. Jalieza was a big Late Classic center, with population of about 10,000. It was theorized to be in competition with the main site, Monte Alban, which is on top of a flattened mountaintop and full of pyramids and ceremonial areas like ball courts.

Through my research using GIS and archaeometry, I determined that Jalieza could have been its own polity without the elites of Monte Alban seeing, as a mountain essentially blocked them from view. The other major Late Classic sites could have been doing all kinds of business with Jalieza without Monte Alban knowing! It desperately needs more research.

It also opened my eyes to the fact that people of Mexican descent are the Aztecs, the Maya, the Mixtec, the Zapotec. Just because they were colonized, and had genocide committed against them doesn’t mean those cultures just vanished. That is an old mischaracterization of the people of the Americas who were disenfranchised and robbed of their cultures and their homes.

Mexicans and their ancestors are the ones who built these amazing civilizations! They deserve respect and credit for it. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital where modern day Mexico City sits, was the product of brilliant engineering on a par with the Romans. The conquistadores called Tenochtitlan “The Venice of the New World” as the Aztec had made islands when the original island grew too small for their growing population.

There are many things in Mexican culture that stem directly from Aztec traditions and they should be celebrated for this. How cool is it to know that the Quinceanera is actually Aztec in origin? This is a Mexican and Mexican American tradition for young women when they turn fifteen. They have a big party and are presented to the world as a woman from that day onward.

Q. I’m a fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s novels, especially those featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast. In their most recent, The Scorpion’s Tail, archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly complains that people think archeology consists of grabbing a shovel and digging things up. Have you found that to be true? Is archaeology more complicated than most of us realize?

A. Oh, yes. Archaeology is far more complex than that. What you are talking about is being a “shovel bum” as we call it and yes, there are archaeologists who do just that. They are mostly people with BAs or BSs who travel around and work on digs, although some with Master’s and PhDs do this too. The thing people forget is, there is a ton of work after that, a lot of lab work and analysis. It requires a tremendous eye for detail, an understanding of cultures different than the one you were brought up with, historical knowledge, scientific knowledge, and the ability to look at information with an unbiased eye.

I am extremely interested in understanding the perspective of ancient peoples as in the past much of archaeology and anthropology was only concerned with characterizing the creators of these amazing sites as unconnected to their modern-day descendants. This happens in the Americas quite a bit. Also, there is a lot of politics within archaeology and there is a desperate need for anthropologists and archaeologists to help protect the cultural resources that are being researched. There is so much behind-the-scenes work in archaeology. Many of us work on a computer or in a laboratory solely.

Q. What made you choose to study anthropology?

A. My father is a cultural anthropologist by the name of Deward Walker, Jr. I grew up going to the reservations with him, attending ceremonies, pow-wows, etc. It gave me a very different perspective of the world than if I had been, say, the child of a lawyer. It made me understand how powerful culture is and how much of what we think of as immutable is actually simply perspective.

My father spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. It has had a deep effect on all of us in the family. My sister, Alice Walker, is a Native American Rights attorney and works for tribes like the Hopi and the Navajo. My little brother, Joe Ben Walker, is a tribal archaeologist with the Cowlitz tribe. My other sister, Mary Walker, is an organic farmer but got her doctorate in ethnomusicology studying Mexican American folk music. I have two more siblings, Dan and Ed, who do their own thing, but they too have a deep interest in this stuff.  So, yeah, we are a bunch of crazy anthropology folks.

Q. Tell us about your glass art. I tried glassblowing once, at the Heritage Glass Museum in Glassboro, NJ. The heat from the furnace was so intense that I thought I was going to pass out. I never wanted to try it again. How did you get started? What kind of pieces do you make?

A. Glass is physically hard, no joke. I worked in production glass making pipes and production pieces at a big glassblowing place called Cornerstone in Eugene, Oregon. It got so hot in there in the summer we would all walk around in our underwear. It was just too hot!

My partner actually got me into glassblowing after I graduated from school with my first BA in sociology. I had no clue what I wanted to do in life. I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy at that time and felt I could never do academics again. I was a bit lost. However, he knew that because I was already an artist (a painter and a writer), he could get me to blow glass if he used the right push.

It is not easy to blow glass. You get burnt, cut, cooked by the heat, and it is physically hard to hold things up and spin them for hours on end. But because it wasn’t easy, and he kept teasing me that girls couldn’t blow glass and he wouldn’t blame me for not trying, I made myself do it. Now I use it to keep my head on straight. You have to relax to be able to make glass work for you. It won’t work if you don’t let it flow. If you want to make something, well, you’d better chill out and focus on just the glass. It is very Zen.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I am working on various sculptures and a novella as well as a few short stories. We are hoping to do a volume two of A Walk in a Darker Wood and I have some other projects up my sleeve. I am also teaching and may be going on a dig in Central America, but with the pandemic, things will have to wait, unfortunately.

Q. You were part of the West Coast punk scene in the 1980s. What was that like? Do you miss those days?

A. I would be lying if I said I didn’t. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I am still an old punk, but one gets older, one gets mellower. On top of that, I am so busy with my art, writing and teaching, I couldn’t do what used to do if I wanted to (go to shows, hang out with friends and make music, go to more shows, etc.)

The punk scene was very different back then. There were so few of us and if you saw someone dressed punk, you would know they were like you. They listened to the same music you did, held the same political views, and you knew that they knew what it was like to be different and not fit in. It was about music, alienation, and politics. Now it has become so popular that it has kind of ruined the whole point. But I do see new bands and young punks and it always makes me smile and gives me hope.

Without people questioning authority, our society would be doomed. We must be vigilant and remember that we humans are all in this together. Everyone is equal- white, black, gay, straight, brown, bi, cis, no-gendered, whatever. The punk scene was about that before it was cool. Back then people would try to run us down, arrest us, etc. just for being who we were. Not all my friends made it. That to me says more about our society than it does about them. They were not “weak” or “unable to cope.” A whole generation of kids like me grew up under the threat of nuclear destruction. We saw what is happening now starting. That existential knowledge destroyed many of us. Being 14 and realized how fucked up human society can be is not easy. We really believed we had no future. Maybe we were right.

Q. What draws you to folk horror, as opposed to other forms of horror?

A. Horror is a platform by which difficult subjects can be addressed. We can talk about racism, sexism, and humanity’s cruelty to humanity. We can pull the scab off and expose the rotten, diseased parts underneath. By doing this, we can heal. Humanity, specifically Western society, has divorced itself from nature for far too long. We are seeing the effect of this all over the world. When people become disconnected from the beauty that is all around us, bad stuff happens. They lose that knowledge that we are part of a greater whole that has no end or beginning.

I think that is why I am mostly drawn to folk horror. More than that, I love anything about folklore. I grew up listening to my dad tell me Coyote tales and other folklore. My mother told me Viking folklore and read me The Hobbit. Folklore serves a very important function in human society: it allows us to bring the subconscious into the light.

Q. Is there anything you’d like to add?

A. Support your local artists and writers! If you want to do art or write, now is time to do it! I am very much about the DIY aspect of the punk scene. You will never know what you could become unless you try to do it! Go write! Make a painting! No one else has your unique perspective. No one else can see with your eyes unless you help them.

 

A conversation with Todd Sullivan, author and martial arts practitioner

Today’s guest is Todd Sullivan. He lives in Taipei, Taiwan, where he teaches English as a second language and English literature and writing.

I’ve known Todd for several years, having met him through the online writing community. He has an impressive resume. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Georgia State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens College. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camp, both of which take place each summer in Vermont..

On top of that he’s a practitioner of the sword-fighting martial art kumdo/kendo. On top of that he fences with a foil and is a practitioner of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, also known (intriguingly, and rather frighteningly) as the Art of Eight Limbs. It combines striking, clinching, punching, elbowing and kneeing one’s opponent. He also practices several other forms of martial arts. Like I said, he’s impressive.

And now for the questions!

Q: Where did you grow up? Do you come from a family of writers?

A: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I lived until I was 18 years old. I didn’t come from a family of writers, but my father often told stories about his day during dinner, and my mother was a voracious reader.

Q: Bread Loaf is regarded as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writers’ conference. The acceptance rate is something like 17 percent. What was your experience there like? Did you meet any famous writers? What was one thing that you took away from it?

A: I enjoyed Break Loaf quite a lot. It is held in a beautiful scenic location, with lots of trees and lots of nature. I remember drinking a lot of wine while there and eating a lot of food. I don’t know if I met famous writers, but I did meet several established authors who have won many awards and publish regularly.

I’m not sure if I took anything away from it. It was a nice experience, a beautiful location, and a lot of fun.

Did I mention the copious amounts of free wine we drank every evening?

Q: What were you like in high school?

A: I read a lot, and spoke mostly only when I had something to say. I went to a religious school and asked the priests a lot of difficult theological questions in class. I didn’t particularly like my high school at the time, though when I look back at it today, I now understand what they were trying to accomplish. Discipline is key to success in life, and my high school prioritized instilling the value of discipline in Purple Knights.

Q: What made you decide to work to Asia?

A: I decided to work in Asia because there was a job available for me there, and I thought it would be an interesting experience that would help set apart the fiction I wrote.

Q: Do your ESL students ask you about conditions in the US? If so, what do they want to know?

A: Not really, no. My students have often been elementary, middle, and high school aged, so 18 or younger, and international current events are very low on their list of priorities. The older students I’ve had have seldom asked much about the US also, and I almost never talk about politics, so it very rarely comes up in my classes.

Q: Tell us about your book Butchers. It takes place in South Korea and centers around Sey-Mi, a high school student who is chosen to be turned into a vampire and brought into the ranks of the Gwanlyo, a secret vampire society.

A: Butchers is a novella that started off as a novel, Natural Police. This was accepted by a publisher several years ago, but the publisher folded before the book was published. I had trouble selling it to someone else, so I extracted the scene from it that had gotten the most amount of attention from people who had read bits of the novel, and wrote a novella around it.

That novella is Butchers, and you have to read to the end to find the scene that is both most memorable and most controversial.

Q: How are the vampires in Butchers different from the ones in the Twilight novels, or from Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

A: They’re probably closer to Dracula than the ones from Twilight. To be fair, I never did read the Twilight books, and only saw one of the movies. However, I think the main difference between their narrative vampires and mine is that, in Butchers, most readers will not walk away from the story wanting to be a vampire. My characters have a nightmarish experience filled with rules, regulations, paperwork, and extreme punishments for those who don’t abide by vampiric law.

Q: What would you like people to know about you?

A: Nothing especially, though I did just start a personal Patreon page, which can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/ToddSullivanContentCreation. With the support of others, I hope to help others around the world who are interested in the arts to make at least something of their creative dreams into an actual reality.

Uncle Earle and the Electric Carving Knife

Uncle Earle was my father’s best friend. He was married to Aunt Alma, my mother’s older sister, and was famous for being a player. Uncle Earle’s romantic dalliances were legendary. At any one time he might have something going with two or three of Aunt Alma’s friends, the woman who owned the dry cleaner where he took his shirts, the coat check girl at his favorite restaurant, and a young lady he happened to sit next to on the train on his way to work. Tall, athletic (he was a former college football running back), beautifully dressed, and debonnaire, Uncle Earle was a thirst trap.

The fact that his job consisted of a sinecure position in a company owned and operated by his wealthy father made it easy for him to pursue his hobby of chasing woman. With no set hours and few duties to perform he could play the field as much as he liked, which was A LOT!

Aunt Alma put up with it, goodness knows why, unless she, too, found him irresistible. There were occasional blow-ups, like the time she took the “diamond” wristwatch he gave her for her birthday to the jeweler to have the band adjusted and learned that the sparking jewels on the watch’s face weren’t diamonds after all but zircons. Uncle Earle goofed by buying two watches at the same time. The diamond one was supposed to go to his wife, while the fake was intended as a love token for one of his girlfriends, but they got mixed up.

Oops.

Things like that were always happening. Aunt Alma would be furious for a while, but then she’d get over it. Uncle Earle was that charming. Aside from the affairs he had no bad habits.

Unless it was his fascination with gadgetry.

Uncle Earle was the reason my father paid several thousand dollars for a stereo, back in the days when stereos were known as a “hi-fi.” That stood for high-fidelity (something Uncle Earle could not claim to practice.) The hi-fi cost almost as much as a new car did at the time, angering my mother, who would have preferred a new car to a complicated device from Sweden which nobody was allowed to touch except for my father, because he claimed it was a “delicate piece of equipment.”

Uncle Earle was also responsible for a dark episode in my parents’ lives referred to simply as, “The Foreign Car.” I’m not sure what kind of car it was, only that it wasn’t a Ford or a Chevrolet or any of the other brands of cars made in America that my father had owned up to that point.

This was not all that long after the conclusion of World War II, when anything that came from any of the former Axis powers was viewed with deep suspicion. The words “Made in Japan” stamped on a product meant that it was not only flimsy and unreliable but that the people who made it had not too long before been trying to kill us. The same went for things from Italy and Germany, although it was grudgingly admitted that Italian food was pretty good, albeit “too spicy.”

As far as I can tell, there are no photographs in existence of The Foreign Car. It wasn’t with us long. I have no idea what it looked like, although I have a dim recollection of it being bright red in color, a two-seater sports car, hellaciously expensive to maintain. It was always breaking down at inconvenient times, leaving my parents stranded on country roads, and forcing my father to walk miles to the nearest pay phone to call for a tow truck.

Years later, my mother confided in me that The Foreign Car had nearly brought about the breakup of their marriage. Uncle Earle had urged my father to buy it, and had accompanied him to the dealership, where Dad purchased it without first conferring with my mother. It was the first and last time he ever bought a car without telling her about it first and asking for her permission.

Getting back to the episode of the electric carving knife, Uncle Earle had one which he used to carve the Thanksgiving turkey that year. My father was envious of the ease with which it went through the turkey, creating thin, perfect slices. He’d always found carving cuts of meat a terrible chore, cursing as he hacked and slashed at the roast or the ham or the turkey, leaving a mangled heap of scraps that looked like something that had been chewed by a feral dogs.

Uncle Earle took note of Dad’s wistful statement that he would love to have an electric carving knife, and got him one for Christmas. Dad was delighted. He vowed to take it on its maiden voyage on New Year’s Day, when we were having a twenty-pound ham, which he’d won in a raffle at the Masonic Lodge.

Electric carving knives today are cordless and rechargeable. The one my father one had was powered through a long, white cord which plugged into the wall. Not having examined the cord carefully, he failed to notice that it was defective. There was a cut in the plastic covering, which left the wire underneath exposed. All might still have been well if I hadn’t spilled my glass of sparkling cider, a stand-in for the grown-ups champagne.

The spilled cider was mopped up by my long-suffering mother, who complained that I was always spilling things. That was because I had terrible eyesight. The fact that I desperately needed eyeglasses had yet to be discovered. Up to then, people thought I was just clumsy.

So, the tablecloth was damp when the carving knife was lowered over the ham. It slipped from my father’s grasp and went bounding and whirring angrily onto the table, the exposed wire in the gap in the cord coming in contact with the wet linen.

There was a loud crackle, and a flash of weird blue light. All of us were instantly thrown from our chairs and flung onto the floor. I could feel the jolt in the fillings in my teeth. My relatives were wide-eyed and dazed, not sure what had happened, only that it was something bad.

The carving knife was still buzzing, wiggling across the table menacingly.

“Unplug it!” shouted my mother.

“Hell no! The damn thing’s alive,” said my father. “I’m not touching that plug. No telling what it’ll do.”

Instead he went downstairs and shut off the electric power to the whole house. Only then did he feel brave enough to gingerly unplug the knife and cast it, trembling, into the garbage.

I have heard people describe having gotten a bad electric shock as similar to being hit with a baseball bat. I have been hit by a baseball bat, one which was swung in anger. I can say that’s exactly what an electric shock feels like: a tremendous blow that knocks you off your feet (or in this case your dining room chair) and leaves you stunned and reeling.

For all of you who have never been blasted out of your seat by a current of electricity, consider yourself fortunate. For those of you who have, I can relate.

Happy New Year! Be sure to check the power cord before plugging anything in.

 

My First Concussion: A Heartwarming Thanksgiving Tale

 

People sometimes ask me, “What the hell is wrong with you? Were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?”

The answer is maybe. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, since my parents were very old and tired when I was born. I may have been dropped by accident when one or the other of them fell asleep while holding me. They never confessed to it, but there are several dents in my skull that make me suspect that I was dropped on the noggin on the regular.

Anyway, this story is not about the dents in my skull but about how my dad and his brother-in-law and partner in crime, my Uncle Earle, made a little girl’s Christmas wish come true and thereby caused her to have a head injury.

The year I turned seven a girl named Debbie moved next door. She was almost exactly the same age as me and was in my class in school. We became what are now called “frenemies.” We hung out together and did stuff together and were deeply, bitterly competitive with each other. I could twirl a baton. Debbie could not. Debbie couldn’t twirl for shit. I mercilessly flaunted my twirling prowess in front of her, twirling not one but two batons simultaneously, throwing them up high in the air and casually catching them behind my back. I bragged about how I was going to be the head twirler for the marching band when we got to high school, making her seethe with rage.

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t made head twirler. Maureen DeFasio was.

Debbie retaliated by doing cartwheels, jeering at me as I stood watching her, red-faced with fury. No matter how hard I tried, and believe me, I tried hard, I couldn’t do a single cartwheel. I flopped over and hit the dirt, as if I had no bones. Debbie would rub in my humiliation by doing back flips. I couldn’t do those, either.

Then Debbie upped the ante by getting a swing set. It came from Sears and it had two swings, a shiny metal slide and two of those rings that gymnasts use to pull themselves up and flip over.

To say I was envious was an understatement. I wanted a swing set so badly that I could practically taste it. I begged my parents to get me one, but they refused, on the grounds that it would ruin the lawn. My parents, middle-class suburbanites to the core – were very proud of our lawn. In the suburbs at that time having a well-cared-for lawn was a sign of moral superiority. Ours was regularly doused with pesticides and meticulously mowed to verdant perfection by my dad every week, using a hand-pushed mower with rotating blades. My parents cherished their lawn and didn’t want it getting messed up.

That meant no swing set for me.

Until a Christmas miracle happened.

It happened on Thanksgiving, but it involved my Christmas present from Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma. The present was (you guessed it) a swing set!

When Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma showed up at our house on Thanksgiving, Uncle Earle pulled open the back of their station wagon and hauled out a big box.

“What do you think is in here?” he asked me, grinning.

The box had a color picture of a swing set on it so I took a wild guess.

“A swing set?”

“Correct!” Uncle Earle said. “It’s your Christmas present. You’re getting it now so you can have fun playing with it before it gets too cold.”

Devoted readers may recall another Christmas present that my dad and Uncle Earle gave me. It was a little metal barn, part of a farm-themed play set. It got blood all over it because the metal pieces were wickedly sharp and my dad and Uncle Earle were very drunk when they assembled it. Finding a blood-smeared barn under the Christmas tree, with my dad and Uncle Earle passed out next to it was quite the Yuletide surprise, let me tell you.

The swing set was just as bad as the bloody barn, but in a different way.

For starters, my dad refused to stabilize its four metal legs by anchoring them in cement.

“It’ll ruin the lawn,” he said, once he and Uncle Earle got it put together. “Just be careful when you’re swinging on it and it’ll be okay.”

Was I careful?
I was at first. I got on and swung. Debbie came out and watched from the other side of the fence which separated our back yards.

“You’re swinging like a baby,” she said.

“No I’m not,” I said.

“Yes you are. Baby, baby! Jill swings like a baby! Ha-ha!”

That did it. I gave a mighty push, thinking, The heck with you, Debbie. I’ll show you.

The swing went up pretty high, almost looping over the top rail. I laughed contemptuously as Debbie looked on in awe.

“Ha-ha! You’re the baby! You are!” I jeered. “Look how high I…”  That’s as far as I got before the swing set toppled over. I sailed out of the swing and onto my mom’s rock garden. My head hit a rock and I blacked out. Debbie, I discovered later, ran into her house and turned on the TV, settling down to watch cartoons, the picture of innocence. She didn’t tell anybody what happened because she thought she’d be blamed for goading me to swing higher. To her credit, she later apologized.

I’m not sure how long I lay there among the rocks, unconscious. My mom was busy making Thanksgiving dinner and gossiping with Aunt Alma. My dad and Uncle Earle were in the living room watching football and drinking beer. It wasn’t until Mom happened to glance out the kitchen window and saw the overturned swing set that she realized something was wrong.

She went outside, untying her apron, angry that I’d managed to knock over my new swing set. She found me sprawled in the rock garden, apparently lifeless.

I woke up to her screaming and pouring the contents of the bird bath over me. I suppose she thought that if I wasn’t dead the cold water would bring me around. It did.

“We gee wazzoo? How you make do this? Razum numkur,” I complained, soaking wet and completely fuddled.

Mom dragged me across the street, moaning and speaking gibberish, to Dr. Daniel’s house. He was a retired dermatologist who’d gotten his medical license way back during the Depression. Dr. Daniel knew more about psoriasis and acne than he did about head injuries, but even he could see what was up.

He shone a light in my eyes and noted that the pupils were different sizes. Then he asked me how many fingers he was holding up.

“Buzzum? Grakus? Floop,” I replied. Then I threw up on his shoes.

“She’s got a concussion,” he told my mother. “Keep her awake. Don’t let her go to sleep. If she goes to sleep she might sink into a coma.”

And that was that. He went to clean off his shoes and my mother dragged me back across the street.

My head hurt. I didn’t eat any of the Thanksgiving dinner, which happened to be a real turkey that year and not one made out of Spam. (Devoted readers may recall how my mother lovingly crafted a turkey one year out of whatever red, gelatinous substance Spam is. She’d seen a Spam turkey in a magazine and was captivated by its originality.)

Mom followed Dr. Daniel’s orders to a T. She didn’t let me go to sleep, not for five days, having misunderstood him to mean that she should never let me sleep again. By then I was hallucinating fish coming out of the walls. A second visit to Dr. Daniel cleared it up. I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead for twenty-four hours.

When I woke up the swing set was gone.

“It was too much trouble,” my father said. “I gave it to a man at work for his kids.”

And that was that.

Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t get a concussion.

A Conversation With Wayne Turmel

Today we’re speaking with author Wayne Turmel. His newest book, Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc, is about a Chicago detective who happens to be a werewolf. Wayne’s previous books were non-fiction business guides focusing on leadership and three historical fiction novels, The Count of the Sahara, Acre’s Bastard, and its sequel, Acre’s Orphans.

Wayne used to be a standup comic. He’s very, very funny. There were parts of The Count of the Sahara that made me LOL. The same with Acre’s Bastard and Acre’s Orphans, although they were more serious, taking place as they did in Jerusalem during the Crusades, with bloodshed and all kinds of depravity unfolding around the streetwise young hero.

Wayne lives in Las Vegas, having moved there from Chicago, allegedly to avoid the cold, snowy winters. However we suspect he wanted to be closer to the nonstop action and the free buffets at the casinos.

Q. Is that true? Did you move to Las Vegas so you could gamble and eat oysters at Caesar’s Palace?

A. Caesar’s ain’t my style. I’m more of a local dive-bar casino and race book kind of guy, although any time you can eat oysters is good. My ideal life would be a sea otter—floating on my back and eating seafood off my belly all day.

Q. What, if anything, do you miss about Chicago, where Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc takes place?

A. I miss everything about Chicago except the weather. My daughter, Her Serene Highness, still lives there, and I still follow the Blackhawks and Cubs. In many ways, what was fun about Johnny Lycan was I got to write about what I love—and what drives me crazy—about a city where I spent eighteen years. I would be there still, but my bride informed me that if I wanted to continue living with her it would be somewhere warmer and sunnier. Oh, and local bookstores like Centuries and Sleuths support local authors.

Q. How did you come up with the idea of a detective who’s a werewolf?

A. I think it began years ago when I read Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour. Here was a secret agent. Okay, a Russian secret agent. Wait, he’s a Russian secret agent fighting Nazis. Oh, and he’s a werewolf. How freaking cool is that? Werewolves have always been my favorite monster…. Ever since I was 13 and saw Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf. At that age I could identify with something hairy and vicious hidden inside me and trying to get out.

Then I had the idea for the opening scene of Johnny Lycan. I write almost everything in first person, and I kept imagining what it would be like to have this rage-monster stuck inside you when you’re basically a good, normal dude. Johnny is a typical blue-collar thirty-year old Chicagoan who just has this THING inside him and we get to be in his head as he navigates the world. He thinks his being a werewolf is the weirdest thing there is… and he’s about to find out he’s wrong. The Anubis Disk is actually something I wrote in a short story that was published at Storgy.com. I love taking things I’ve written and melding them together. I’m forming the Johnnyverse, like the Arrowverse only way more obscure and less financially successful.

Q. What appeals to you about detective fiction? What made you decide to switch to that genre after writing historical fiction?

A. I grew up in the late 60s and 70s so it was all cop shows and detectives in my house. Truthfully, this is more of an Urban Fantasy story laid on top of a detective tale. (Book marketing and genres make my head hurt.) I was actually reluctant to tackle this story because so far all my novels have been historical fiction, which has a certain air of class about it. Who wants to hear a 59-year-old man talk about imaginary monsters? I was afraid I’d hurt my author brand, but then I realized I wasn’t selling much anyway, what was I going to offend BOTH of my readers? So, I decided to do it and it’s been so much fun. I’m already starting on the second book.

Q. Wisecracking Philip Marlowe or brooding Sam Spade? Or do you prefer Sherlock Holmes and his pal Dr. John Watson?

A. If I had to pick one, it would be Spade in the Maltese Falcon. If you’re looking for Johnny’s inspiration, though, it’s more like Spenser for Hire… a blue collar mook who is a little rough around the edges.

Q. What scene gave you the most trouble in Johnny Lycan?

A. Oh, Lord, it was the sex scene. Yes, not only is it werewolves, but he has a rather energetic romp with an older woman. One of the people I asked to blurb my book said he wouldn’t do it because the sex scene was too much for him and I thought, “dang I must have written the snot out of that scene.” You get told to write what you know…. But I wrote it anyway.

Q. Without giving away the ending, what did you enjoy most about writing Johnny Lycan?

A. I got to take my filters off. In my business writing, I have to be a grown up. In my historical novels, I’m restrained by the genre and the language and way people acted in a certain time. This is 2020 Chicago and I can be as unfiltered as I want. There are a couple of jokes I’m either ashamed or proud of, depending on who’s reading them. Plus I got to write about werewolves!

Thank you, Wayne, and good luck with Johnny Lycan & the Anubis Disc. Here’s the link to buy it from Amazon in Kindle or paperback format:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08KQHJQ7D/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Here’s the link to purchase it from Black Rose Writing, and to check out all the other great books available:

https://www.blackrosewriting.com/scififantasy/johnnylycan?rq=Johnny

From Barnes & Noble:

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/johnny-lycan-the-anubis-disk-wayne-turmel/1137330104

 

 

To hear more from Wayne Turmel:

http://wayneturmel.com/about-wayne/

 

 

 

Fun With Tulpas

Black Willows, book 2 in the Trapnell Thriller series, will be released tomorrow. So far, the reviews have been gratifyingly positive, although one reviewer said she didn’t care for that sort of thing. That’s okay. Some people don’t care for caviar, or cilantro. There’s no accounting for tastes, as the chorus girl said to the bishop.

Another reviewer, a teacher, said she liked Black Willows so much that she intended to include it the material she shares with her students. I hope her students aren’t little children, since the book has swear words in it, as well as acts of violence, not that little children aren’t violent sometimes, and use bad language, but it’s best not to encourage them.

Today’s topic is tulpas. One of the minor characters in Black Willows is a tulpa, or that’s how it appears. I’d read about them long ago and was fascinated. I was gratified to find that David Lynch included a tupa in his latest Twin Peaks series. You can always count on David Lynch to be weird, and tulpas are very, very weird.

Here’s a story I wrote several years ago about a man who created one. It explains how it’s done, if you want to give it a go. Just remember, difficult as it is to create a tulpa, it’s even more difficult to get rid of them.

The Trouble With Tulpas

How did I learn how to make a tulpa? The same way I learned how to install a ceiling fan, and to stop the kitchen faucet from dripping: I watched a YouTube video. You can find out how to do just about anything from YouTube, including flying an airplane and performing thoracic surgery.

The question nobody asks is why I made a tulpa. They’re more interested in the how-to part of it, not that I blame them. Not everyone can make a tulpa. It seems I have a knack for it. I’d have preferred to have a knack for making money, or getting women to agree to go out with me, but I don’t.

Tulpas, as you may know, are beings that are created through intense concentration and spiritual discipline. They’re sort of like an imaginary friend made real. Tibetan Buddhist monks are rumored to sometimes create tulpas as part of their religious exercises. I made my tulpa so I could drive to work in the HOV lane.

HOV stands for high-occupancy vehicle. Cars with just a driver aren’t allowed in them. You need at least one passenger to qualify for admission to the HOV lane, the usage of which would cut my commute from forty-five minutes of crawling, bumper-to-bumper, white-knuckle hell to about twenty minutes of breezing down the highway at sixty miles per hour.

My problem was that no one I worked with lived close enough to me so we could car-pool. I live in a suburb and work in a major city. My hours are midnight to eight a.m., doing something very boring in a medical research laboratory.

The notices I put up in the coffee shop I frequent, and the dry cleaner, asking if anybody wanted to ride-share with me, got no responses. Not many people work those hours. Serial killers probably do, but if any of them saw my notices, they didn’t call me.

Of course I tried using the HOV lane anyway, hoping to sneak by under cover of darkness and not be detected by the highway patrol. It worked once, but on the second night, flashing blue lights appeared in my rearview mirror, followed by a stern, amplified voice commanded me to pull my vehicle to the shoulder of the roadway. Have you noticed it’s never a car with the police? It’s always a vehicle, and it’s never a road, it’s a roadway.

I pulled over, and a highway patrol officer strode up to my door, his hand hovering near the gun he wore on his belt. He probably called it his “weapon,” or his “firearm” in police-speak, just like my car was a “vehicle.” He studied me accusingly through narrowed, pale blue eyes, and asked if I knew I’d been driving in the HOV lane.

The lane was clearly marked with big, luminescent white letters painted on the surface of the road every hundred feet or so, making it impossible not to know, but I feigned ignorance.

“No! Really? I had no idea,” I said, trying to sound shocked. “Thanks for pointing that out, officer.”

His eyes narrowed even further. “Are you being a wiseass?”

The upshot was, he gave me a ticket. He told me he’d be watching for me, and I’d better stay out of the HOV lane, unless I had someone else in the car with me.

That’s when I remembered hearing Beerman talk about tulpas.

Beerman lived in my dormitory during my freshman year of college. His real name was Dave, but everybody called him Beerman, as if he was some kind of superhero whose superpower was frenetic, hectic energy, fueled by an almost-continuous intake of beer.

Beerman was a freshman, but he looked like he was around twenty-five. He may actually have been twenty-five, for all I knew. Beerman loved beer. He used to come bursting into people’s rooms at 2 a.m., snapping on the lights, brandishing a six-pack and chanting, “Beer! Beer! Beer! Wake up and drink some beer!”

If we tried to get him to leave us alone by pretending to be asleep, he’d shake our beds until we got up and had a beer with him. He was amiable but relentless, like the Hari Krishnas who used to haunt airport terminals. Many mornings, I’d stumble to my first class, blinking my eyes to bring them into focus, having sat up drinking with Beerman until the sun rose.

I would have locked my door to keep him out, but the doors didn’t have locks on them. That’s because my dorm, or my house, as the individual dorms were called, was called Honesty House, and none of the doors had locks, not even the bathrooms. The idea was that the residents of Honesty House were supposed to be completely open and honest with each other, in an environment of trust and mutual respect.

Theft was rampant in Honesty House, as I discovered after someone stole my laptop and my iPod during my first week there.

The other houses were called Sky-Clad House, where everyone walked around naked, and Earth House, and some other hippie-dippy names that I can’t recall now. I won’t tell you the name of the school. You’d probably recognize it, not so much for its academic cachet as for being the alma mater of one of the minor beat poets, as well as a woman who wrote a best-selling book about her intimate relations with not one but two famous rock musicians.

It wasn’t so much a college as a cliché of artsy-fartsy pretentiousness. I can only describe it as being like going to school at Burning Man. I went there because I was sort of a hippie in high school, but my experiences during my freshman year purged any inclination in that direction right out of me. It was somewhat like being scared straight by having convicts shout at you, except in my case, it was a required class called “Mindfulness,” taught by an awful woman named Waterfall that brought me around. I changed my major from philosophy to chemistry and made a beeline out of there, transferring to another school that was more or less normal.

I have no idea what became of Beerman. He might be a mercenary fighting in some foreign jungle, or he may have joined a bizarre religious cult. It’s even possible that he became an undersecretary of defense, he was that strange a person.

In addition to being obsessed with beer, Beerman was obsessed with a book he’d once read by a French woman named Alexandra David-Néel, in which she described having created a tulpa while living in Tibet. The tulpa she created looked like a jolly Buddhist monk. It was apparently so realistic that other people besides her were able to see it.

Beerman dearly wished he could make a tulpa.

“It was a funky little Friar Tuck-type guy. I’d love to have me a tulpa like that to chill with,” he said.

But, not surprisingly, Beerman was unable to muster the necessary concentration it takes to form a tulpa.

I thought I’d give it a go. What did I have to lose? I had to spend hours and hours at work in the lab, basically doing nothing but watching a lot of dials and flashing lights, while various chemical processes took place. Why not kill the time by concentrating on making a tulpa, to share my rides to and from work? If I made a tulpa, and other people could see it, I could take the HOV lane without fear of being pulled over by the police.

I decided to try and make a tulpa that looked like Beerman.

With a bank of whirling centrifuges taking the place of Tibetan prayer wheels, I’d sit on one of the rolling stools they have in the lab and let my mind go blank. Then I’d start to concentrate on my tulpa. I’d visualize Beerman, shaking his shaggy, dark blonde hair out of his eyes as he leaned down to tap a keg, or raising the enormous foaming stein to his mouth that he’d brought back from Oktoberfest in Munich. I’d picture him, howling like a Viking as he slid down the snow-covered hill behind the pottery studio, on a tray he’d swiped from the dining hall. I envisioned him striding purposefully down the side of the road that led into town, thumb out, on his way to buy more beer.

I remember the first time I managed to summon up a shadowy form. I’d gone to the snack machines in the break room, and was walking back into the lab, my mouth full of pretzel sticks, when I noticed a semi-transparent figure lurking in one corner of the room. It was grey and featureless, but it looked vaguely humanoid. The sight of it startled me so much that I inhaled sharply, causing me to choke on salty pretzel crumbs. I wheezed and gasped for breath, doubled over coughing. When I recovered, the shadowy figure was gone.

Encouraged by my initial success, I kept at it, night after night, until one night, a solid-looking being that looked exactly like Beerman materialized and stood before me.

Eureka! I’d made a tulpa.

I nervously asked it, “How’re you doing?”

It grinned broadly, but it made no reply. Perhaps it couldn’t speak, as I never heard it utter a word during our brief association. It surveyed the room, frowning, as if it were looking for something, then it held up a forefinger, as if struck by an idea. It looked searchingly at me and mimed raising something to its lips. Then it threw its head back and appeared to drink.

“Beer! You want a beer!” I said.

The tulpa leveled a forefinger at me and winked, in the universal sign for, “You got it.”

I concentrated again, summoning up an image of a red and white can of Budweiser, Beerman’s beverage of choice. Instantly, a can of Bud appeared in the tulpa’s hand. It even had droplets of condensation on it, as if it had been chilled.

The tulpa’s grin widened. It popped the top.

Awestruck as I was to have created a tulpa, I needed to get it out of there before my supervisor saw it. We weren’t supposed to have visitors, especially long-haired, beer-drinking visitors, but first, I wanted to find out if anyone else could see the tulpa. That would be key, if I wanted to use the HOV lane without getting pulled over.

I was alone in the lab where I worked, but there was another guy who worked next door, doing something unpleasant to mice. His name was V.J. Patel. He was a decent sort. I doubted he’d rat me out for having a visitor.

“Follow me,” I told the tulpa.

V.J. was injecting a squirming white rodent with a syringe full of pinkish fluid when I walked in, followed closely by the tulpa. He glanced up, and did a double-take.

I told him, “This is my friend, uh, Dave. I’m giving him a ride home.”

The tulpa waved amiably at V.J.

“Hi, Dave,” V.J. said. He asked me, “Are you leaving now?”

I said I was, as soon as I logged the results of the tests I’d been running and clocked out. V.J. nodded and reached for another mouse from the cage in front of him.

“It was nice meeting you,” he told the tulpa, who smiled and flashed him the peace sign.

That proved it. Other people could see the tulpa. I quickly finished up at work, eager to be on my way home. I noticed that the tulpa had already gone through several cans of beer, and I carefully collected them and put them in a paper bag, to dispose of at home. The cans kept materializing without my willing them to. I was reminded uneasily of the scene about the overwhelmed sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia that had frightened me as a boy.

 I was interested to see that the cans appeared to be exactly like ordinary beer cans. One of the cans wasn’t quite empty. I could hear liquid sloshing around inside it when I picked it up. I hesitated a moment before tilting it to my lips and swallowing. It tasted just like beer. Remarkable, I thought.

I was headed home, the tulpa seated beside me in the passenger seat, drinking yet another beer, when flashing blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror. Oh, shit! I thought, and pulled over.

A highway patrolman got out of the cruiser and approached my door. He leveled a flashlight at me that threw an intense beam of light in my face. I realized with a sinking sensation that it was the same cop who’d pulled me over before.

He must have recognized me too, because he said, “You again!”

He shined the light onto the passenger seat, which was empty, save for a can of beer that was lying on its side, emitting a trickle of liquid onto the seat, where a sizeable puddle had collected. Several empty beer cans had rolled out from under the seat and were rolling around, clanking, on the floor mat. The car smelled like a brewery. Of the tulpa, there was no sign. He’d vanished without a trace, gone back to wherever such things come from.

The cop looked at me funny.  “Where’s the other guy that was just here? And what’s with all the beer cans? Have you been drinking tonight? Are you aware you were exceeding the speed limit?”

Of course I said I hadn’t been drinking. And of course, when he made me get out of the car and attempt to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other, like a tightrope walker, I was so nervous that I stumbled and staggered.

Fortunately, a roadside breathalyzer test registered only a minute trace of alcohol, well under the legal limit. I was thankful I’d only had a swallow of the tulpa’s beer. The cop gave me a searching look.

He said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it. I’m not going to give you a ticket for speeding, because a court appearance is required, and frankly, I don’t want to have to see you in court. I don’t want to have to see you ever again, got it?”
I said I got it, and drove slowly home. I never saw the tulpa again, although I have the uneasy feeling that he may return someday, probably at an inopportune moment. That’s the trouble with tulpas, you can never be sure what they’re going to do next.

Act 2

The sequel to my first thriller, White Oaks, will be released on Oct. 22. It’s called Black Willows and you should, by all means, hurry on over to Amazon, let your finders do the walking, and preorder a copy right now. The preorder price is $5.99. You can read it for free on Kindle Unlimited. Such a deal, amirite?

Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DH43KX7

The big question is why write a sequel? Why not move on and write something else? Maybe something with characters in it who aren’t vain, greedy, foolish, untrustworthy, and in most cases, not nice at all.

Some readers didn’t like that about White Oaks: the lack of niceness. In addition to complaints about the swearing and the violence they griped that the characters were unlikable. My response is that most real people are unlikable. I certainly am.

The fact that the two nicest people in White Oaks are an international arms dealer and a teenage recovering addict also annoyed some readers. People who sell land mines and fighter jets aren’t supposed to be sympathetic. Neither are heroin addicts. Yet Marsh Trapnell and his nephew Benjamin are sympathetic. Odd, that.

The thing is, real people are complicated. So why shouldn’t imaginary people be complicated too? The Trapnells are rude, self-absorbed, and very, very funny. If you had inherited millions of dollars and were in line to inherit billions more you’d be pretty weird too.

I don’t want to give the impression that everyone hated White Oaks. Far from it. Most readers liked it a lot and didn’t hold back from saying so. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have made something that people enjoyed. Thank you. That’s why I write, because I like making up stories and sharing them.

So back to the Trapnells. After I wrote The End and closed the last page in the Word document that made up White Oaks I thought it was the end of their journey. They’d recovered a stolen ancient artifact with mysterious, deadly powers, uncovered a plot to destroy the world, and thwarted the evildoers. What more was there to say?

Plenty, as it turned out.

The Trapnells wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about them and wondering what happened next. Would Ewell Haskins ever accomplish his dream of becoming sheriff? Would Gordon Buzzy continue to operate his horrible convenience store? Would the Trapnells ever find a new butler? Was it really a good idea for Marsh to be friends with someone called The Madman of the Steppes? These questions and others haunted me. That’s why I wrote Black Willows. It has a tulpa in it. In the next blog I’ll talk about those.

A Visit With Dan Kalin of Feral Cat Publishers

Our guest today is author and publisher Dan Kalin. Dan runs Feral Cat Publishers. We became acquainted in 2018, when he was kind enough (or foolish enough) to publish my short story, “Goodnight, Pretty Molly,” in an anthology called Bubble Off-Plumb.

 “Goodnight, Pretty Molly,” is about a robot police officer and a parrot, the only survivors of some kind of unspecified catastrophe which killed everyone in the world. It’s grim, but people who’ve read it say they like it. All the stories in Bubble Off-Plumb are good. Here’s a link to learn more about it, and about Feral Cat Publishers:

https://feralcatpublishers.com/books/bubble-off-plumb

Later this month Feral Cat Publishers plans to release Dear Leader Tales. It’s a collection of humorous or satirical poems and short stories about clueless CEOs, ham-handed politicians, and various annoying/appalling overlords. I think we can all relate, can’t we?

In addition to being an author and publisher, Dan has done many things. He has worked as an engineer and a management consultant. He’s an inventor and a member of Mensa, a non-profit organization for highly intelligent people.

Dan is also a competitive swimmer, competing in Masters events. Most recently he has taken part in open-water races in Florida, where he lives.

And now for the Q and A!

Q: Please tell our (very few) readers a little bit about being an independent publisher. What is that, exactly? How did you get involved in it? What are its challenges? What are its triumphs?

A: It’s kind of a moving target. Initially I started the company to handle in-house content as a liability breakwater. After putting out a couple of books, I realized we had sufficient resources to do even more, so we branched out. It became apparent there are many companies feeding off those who can least afford it, namely indie or self-publish authors. So we only sell books, not services.


We have a free book review program which is unique in a couple of ways. First we actually buy a copy of a book and write the reviews as readers, which means they are most useful kind: “verified purchase” reviews on Amazon. The industry, especially the pay-for-literary reviews segment, has diluted the objectivity of reviews to the point where it adds little useful data for potential buyers. One paid service only provides 4 and 5 star reviews, for example, and many truly horrible books have 5-star ratings there. Great for an author’s ego, but not useful for a potential buyer. FCP has a more objective review standard, which we use for all of our reviews. So a poorly written book is going to be rated accordingly. We have a monthly budget for the program and execute against it. The program is kind of a karmic experiment in that we’ll review books and hopefully it will eventually come back around in the form of reviews for our growing catalog.

Q: How many books has Feral Cat published so far? How do you decide what to publish next?

A: Seven as of next week. The goal is to publish two to three good books per year. Recently we started a “Publisher-Lite” program, but so far we haven’t found the right mix of author interest and content. It’s an optimization exercise. The question is how can we release the most high-quality content with the resources at our disposal?

Q: Is it true you were never a member of the covert intelligence community?

A: It is true.

Q: What are you currently reading? Do you prefer prose or poetry? Fiction or non-fiction, biography, history, how-to manuals, or are you an eclectic reader who’s happy to peruse whatever is at hand?

A: I generally have two or three books in process at any given moment, finishing five or sometimes as many ten per week. For entertainment, I stick close to fiction for the most part (science fiction and fantasy). I’m one of those people who can learn how to do something by reading a how-to book, but those aren’t usually front-to-back reads just the parts needed. Dear Leader Tales story and poem submittals ran about 600K words, which all had to be read and rated within a two week period. Luckily I read fast and have fairly good recall.


Prose or Poetry? Generally I think there is more well-written prose than there is poetry, especially in the indie author space. Poetry is harder to write, and few do it well. I want to read well-written texts, so prose gets most of the mind-share.

Q: What’s it like living in Florida? Do you have a Florida Man story you’d like to share?

A: If you live in Florida, you also have county-level Florida Men, and Brevard County has some especially thick examples. One thing I have noticed is most Florida Man stories involve native-born Floridians, rather than transplants. I’m planning to relocate to Denver to be closer to my grandcats and to have four seasons.

Q: How would you describe your own writing? Do you have a work in progress?

A; I have a science fiction novel in edits (Pandora’s Children), a Martyrs sequel about half complete, and four or five other projects in various stages of completion. I’m not counting short stories which get done pretty fast. I have the luxury of being able to write whatever I want to, which means it never really gets boring. I try to write a certain quota of words per day, but it isn’t tied to a specific project. If I’m blocked on one project I just switch to one that isn’t and things progress. The mix in genres makes it difficult to build a reader base, but that isn’t existential for me. My goal is to spend most of my time writing, as that is what creates intellectual property. The other elements are important for various reasons but do not contribute to that goal.

Q: Please tell us about your pets. I believe you have a dog, or more than one dog. Do you have cats also? Is it a peaceable kingdom at your house or are there occasional dust-ups among the animal population?

A: You heard of the uprising then? In years past, the kingdom was peacefully administered by a feline overlord (naturally), but when he passed it created a power vacuum which no canine can fill. So currently there is unrest, a scrambling for position. I await the return of the once and future monarch to restore a balance.

Q: Is there anything I forgot to ask that you’d especially like to mention?

A: Just to note that I’m a recovering Engineer/Mensan. Both things warranted a 12-Step program. One day at a time!

Can Wiggins Talks About Ghosts, Grits, and Writing

Let’s welcome Can Wiggins. Can and I came to know one another through mutual Facebook friends, and by having short stories published in some of the same anthologies. Can’s body of work includes “Haint,” in The Phantasmagorical Promenade, and “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time,” in Test Patterns, both from Oxygen Man Books. Her short story, “King o’ the Wood,” will be in the folk horror anthology, A Walk in a Darker Wood, coming this fall from Oxygen Man Books and edited by Duane Pesice, Sarah Walker, and Gordon B. White.

Q: What are you currently working on?

I have four – at this time – projects including a short story I’m sending out in a few days; I have a novella in the works, a dystopian after the end tale which is told from a girl’s viewpoint in a rural environment. There aren’t many Appalachian/Deep South post-apocalyptic tales so I thought it would be fun to get that going. And my partner and I are resurrecting a SF mythos *plus* a crime/noir series set in Georgia.

Q: You describe your home as “The Spooky Old House.” How old and spooky is it?

A: It’s a rambling three-story house built in the 1980s (I think) by a guy who never intended to live here and you can tell. Some things are just “off.” But I’m surrounded by greenery, including a side yard I call The Nursery as deer drop their fawns there every year. There are massive water oaks on a nice piece of land with a creek, deadfalls, possums, hawks, mushrooms, fairy rings, and wildlife. I’m very careful to not take that for granted or disturb it. I don’t cut the grass in the back yard, which is fenced in. This means I get to grow things there and in The Sacrificial Pit, on all three decks, and watch the deer and birds and butterflies come in and make themselves at home and I really like that. It’s spooky because I leave it alone and let animals live there. I let Nature take Her course. And when the Hallelujah Chorus (owls in the trees outside my windows) starts up at 2 in the morning? FUN. Plus I watch/read/write/discuss the weird, the odd, the scary with my partner on the regular and we also report to each other when we do have something weird or spooky happen. The things that go bump in the night? Those. I am cheek by jowl with those.

Q: Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, what was it like? If not, would you want to see one, or would you prefer ghosts not manifest when you’re around?

Not that I was or am aware of, although I have had “experiences” and have witnessed things not easily explained or understood. I’m writing a story about one such time, because that’s what I do. I would prefer ghosts do what they have to do.

Q: You live in Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia, beloved alma mater of Blanton Trapnell, patriarch of the mad Trapnell family in my series of Southern Gothic thrillers. Have you always lived in Athens? What are its pluses and minuses?

I have lived in The Classic City for approximately 15 years, moving up from Atlanta where I lived even longer. I visited off and on when I still lived in Atlanta and Decatur, usually Thanksgivings, or to check out a restaurant. I’ll never forget the first time I ate at “The Last Resort” on Clayton. That was heaven on earth on a plate. “Five & 10” by Hugh Acheson was/is also a treasure but it’s a little pricey so it’s a twice-a-year treat.

A lot of people don’t realize that Athens is a great foodie destination. That’s the plus. The minus? Blind-drunk vomiting and crying out-of-control kids downtown during home football games. I don’t mean a few. I mean a few hundred, a few thousand.

Q: You eat well at the Spooky Old House, judging by the photos you share on Facebook. What’s your stance on grits? Salt and pepper only? Cheese? Hot sauce? There are people who put sugar on grits. Are you one of them?

Thanks for the love! I do eat grits but usually only in the colder months. I would never ruin grits with sugar or hot sauce. I butter my grits, I don’t use much salt or pepper but on weekends, I top them with bacon and a soft-boiled egg or chopped up scallions. I basically make a ramen bowl, but with grains.

Q: You have a number of side gigs, in addition to writing. You edit and proofread and you’re a scopist. Please tell our (very few) readers what that is and how you got into it.

A scopist is a proofreader/editor who edits transcripts of official proceedings, like those created by court reporters, for official hooha such as court hearings. They transcribe spoken word to written text. I worked for Reuters AP and that’s what I did, only for financial earnings LIVE calls of any company on the NYSE/NASDAQ, as well as the other stock markets around the world. I’m good with languages but – whew. I also did a couple of Congressional hearings after 9/11. I also worked for CNN and TBS and did this. Had a ball but it was incredibly stressful. You had to be 100-percent every second. I was tapped for those jobs by folks who had worked with me and thought I’d be a good fit.

Q: Who’s your favorite author, and why?

Uh-oh. This is similar to asking me which child is my favorite, isn’t it?. So, let me give you a handful of authors I always search out or those I always come back to.

First things first: I read a lot. I read books for a living one year and it was like entering the Kingdom of Heaven Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. So, here we go.

Lawrence Block, especially his short stories – his economy of language is a gift and he grabs you from the first sentence; Flannery O’Connor; Carson McCullers; Ursula K. LeGuin; Laurie Colwin – a very different genre and writer for me; China Mieville – a definite trip off the rails with his mixing of genres. Noir AND Science Fiction? I’m in!; Shirley Jackson – her short stories are still first in class, sparse and to the point; Kij Johnson – if you haven’t read “26 Monkeys or The Abyss,” do that as soon as you can; Elizabeth A. Lynn no longer writes but in the ‘80s she wrote a fantastic series titled “The Chronicles of Tornor,” which changed the way I looked at alternative worlds in science fiction and fantasy including POC and gay characters well before it was “cool.” Well worth finding/reading.

Now, I want to talk about some others. I also read and search out small presses and their authors. I enjoy Duane Pesice’s work quite a lot. I cut my teeth on the Golden Age of Science Fiction and it’s always fun and honestly comforting to see someone with that similar background roll out fresh takes on the nuts and bolts fiction that drives the machine. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is another favorite. His short stories and poetry always make me see the world through a much wider lens. Who else? Craig L. Gidney is an incredible writer and, if I ruled the world, reading his work would be mandatory.  Nadia Bulkin’s stories are like pearls washed up on the beach, just laying out there for you to pick up.

There are so many folks to tap here, it’s crazy hard to keep up with everyone and everything. I mean, I have to stop but I don’t want to. You scratch this surface and you will find so much more underneath.

I will wrap this up by telling you that I like Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction but it’s his and Ann VanderMeer’s co-edited anthologies that are the real juggernauts worth investigating. They are doing great and important work – I can’t emphasize this enough – with compiled works from decades, even centuries ago, from around the world, and from other authors. I can’t say enough good things about this.